The Rise of HBCU Sports by Darrius Williams

Is there a resurrection of HBCU athletics making a significant mark in the world of sports?

Jun 7

In society and history, Historically Black Colleges and Universities have played a pivotal role. They are rich in history, tradition and creating educational opportunities for many African American men and women across the nation. HBCUs hold a special reverence and respect amongst many people. Even those that did not attend an HBCU have some respect for their history and what they stand for. Notable institutions like Spelman College, Howard University, Morehouse College, North Carolina A&T, and Clark Atlanta University are household names. However, while many hold HBCUs in high regard and feel that they need to be protected at all costs, HBCUs are considered a non-factor when it comes to the world of sports. Many of the nation’s top athletic prospects won’t even consider stepping foot in an HBCU locker room, regardless of the history or how profound the institutions are to those that share their skin color. But is this tide beginning to turn? Is there a resurrection of HBCU athletics making a significant mark in the world of sports?

When one thinks of college sports, the same prominent power conference names often come to mind: Alabama, Ohio State, Michigan, Oklahoma, Auburn, Georgia, LSU, Texas, Kentucky, UConn, Baylor, and the list goes on. These schools are notable in football, basketball, track, etc. Most times, a high school athlete who has a real shot at making it in the professional ranks or desires to increase their chances to do so dreams of playing for one of these schools. But why is that? What motivates and pushes that desire? Often, some of the aspects that turn athletes away from considering HBCUs are the lack of state-of-the-art facilities, the lack of resources that a lot of elite Division one programs have, the lack of national exposure and television coverage. Surprisingly, one of the most significant factors is simply that many HBCUs do not recruit or even recruit some highly esteemed athletes. Let’s unpack this.

HBCUs, in general, have the reputation of not being up to par with facilities and housing, even on the basic student level. Many HBCU alums will jokingly but pridefully speak about the housing struggles and aspects they had to deal with when living on an HBCU campus. It’s no wonder that this too translates into the realm of athletic facilities, especially when sports are often not what is prioritized at HBCUs. The history of the institution, the band, and black fraternities and sororities are often the significant priorities at HBCUs apart from the education. The glitz and glamour of beautiful stadiums, arenas, locker rooms, and overall resources are a powerful draw for a young high school kid looking for a place to continue his or her athletic career. These play an essential role in recruitment visits and making the school attractive to the prospective athlete. This has often been something that can work against HBCUs.

The other major factor that turns off young prospective athletes is the lack of national exposure and television coverage. Can you recall how many times you’ve seen HBCU football, basketball, softball, or other televised matchups nationally? Now and then, you can catch a matchup on ESPN2 or another sports network, and sometimes the annual classics are televised nationally toward the end of the season. However, it doesn’t even scratch the surface of the amount of coverage a talent receives playing for one of these powerhouse programs. We’re talking ESPN, ABC, NBC, and many other networks. Exposure is vital for a skill to be seen by scouts and those at the next level, not to mention exposure is essential for creating a brand among sports fans to boost the potential even higher.

Recruitment, the biggest question is, are HBCU programs even trying to land these prominent athletes? While there are some significant HBCU programs for sports such as Jackson State, Southern, Grambling, (Florida A&M University), FAMU, North Carolina A&T, and others, are HBCUs aggressive in recruiting top talent? that they are not. In a sense, it almost becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that HBCU coaches and athletic directors accept that they don’t have enough to compete with powerhouse schools not just on the field of play but off of it when it comes to drawing in elite talent. With all that being said, this tide is slowly but surely beginning to take a turn.

Some of the most significant momentum shifts in the world of HBCU sports have been Deion Sanders, arguably one of the greatest football players ever to play, taking a head coaching job at Jackson State University and Makur Maker, one of the nation’s top basketball stars, committing to Howard University. While some may not see it as much, these are two significant moments that open the door to endless possibilities for HBCU sports. Suppose elite talent begins to consider playing in programs where they will shine and carry that program without a doubt. In that case, it could yield much attention, financial resources, and exposure to many of these institutions. People often forget that several professional athletes came from HBCUs, and now with people like Deion Sanders speaking out on behalf of HBCUs, this will not be a momentum that fades away. Will there ever be a day where we see HBCUs competing and defeating the likes of Alabama, Georgia, UConn, Kentucky, etc.? The talent from other powerhouse programs comes from the African American community, and the battle is who will win over that talent and gain their allegiance. It’s safe to say that HBCUs are putting their chips in and beginning to gain the confidence that they can and will one day reach that level.