Deion Sanders’ not-so-all-surprising decision to leave Jackson State for the University of Colorado has exposed a lot in the days since the coach bolted to Boulder.
And what’s been uncovered is an ugly underlying disdain for and mischaracterization of HBCUs, HBCU culture, and even Black people.
It all stems from public perception held that Sanders abandoned his mission to uplift and “level the playing field” for HBCU athletes and schools before real fruit from the work could be realized.
While few expected Sanders to be an HBCU lifer like South Carolina State coach Buddy Pough or Alcorn State coach Fred McNair, Coach Prime — on the day he was introduced at Jackson State in 2020 — presented a divine expectation inspired by social unrest that his stint at JSU was going to be bigger than winning football games.
“First and foremost, God led me to Jackson State. That’s what I can truly and honestly say,” Sanders said then. “With what we’re doing in the country — social injustices, so many things about trying to reach and strive for equality — this is the best possible scenario and situation I could ever find myself in. “It’s a task to me — level the playing field.”
So after nearly three years of embarking on a crusade to promote the viability of HBCUs, increase national exposure, challenge the NFL itself to consider drafting more Black college players, and land high-level talent on the recruiting trail at Jackson State, Sanders took the “Prime effect” to a predominately white Colorado program that was 1-11 overall in 2022 in exchange for a reported $5 million a year salary.
The Buffaloes’ mediocrity — though an FBS one– is better than the 26-5 Black excellence experienced at an HBCU.
Prime numbers 🔥 pic.twitter.com/zGILBecBjl
— Colorado Buffaloes Football (@CUBuffsFootball) December 7, 2022
For many who were galvanized by Sanders’ advocacy and rhetoric, it felt like a betrayal — an abandonment of not only the mission but those who would be left behind to continue the work without the spark of a sports legend to enter spaces that only someone of his stature could access.
You can acknowledge all the good Sanders did while wishing he would have continued to remain committed for a little while longer.
The strong reaction to Sanders’ career promotion was borne not from animus about Black male achievement but from a historical trauma of having to once again experience the best of us being plucked away and used to empower white aims.
College coaches go through jobs like corporate investors do housing subdivisions to make a profit. It is nothing new. But none of them presented a message as a savior for an individual school or a collective body of them first.
The decline of the Negro Leagues is a stark example of that. HBCU athletics have been victimized on multiple fronts, too: desegregation for a quarter century where the very best Black prep athletes who once starred at HBCUs turned the SEC, for example, into a billion-dollar powerhouse instead of SWAC or MEAC.
The other blow was a systemic and intentional economic marginalization of Black colleges everywhere by governing bodies that largely prevented HBCUs from coming close to leveling the playing field Sanders desired to be even.
This context was lost on Undisputed host Shannon Sharpe, FS1, Speak co-host Joy Taylor, ESPN football analyst Keyshawn Johnson, and everyone else who has shown to be ill-equipped to discuss these frameworks because of their ignorance of HBCUs and their history.
Unc Shannon sharpe talks about Deion sanders accepting the head coaching job at Colorado pic.twitter.com/7mBieDLff0
— Shannonnn sharpes Burner (PARODY Account) (@shannonsharpeee) December 5, 2022
What’s worse is that this understandable criticism from HBCU stakeholders has sparked irresponsible commentary that Sanders was doing everyone a favor by coaching at Jackson State. Or that without Deion Sanders, America would not have known HBCUs even existed. Or that Sanders should not be criticized for going after wealth like Nick Saban if that was his only motivation despite the now-Colorado coach proclaiming that HBCUs, not Power Five enticements would be a viable pathway to prosperity.
Or that Sanders doesn’t owe HBCUs anything despite two HBCUs –Talladega College and Jackson State — providing the foundation that allowed him to coach when Power Five schools did not oblige.
Those types of analyses completely overstate what Sanders did for Black colleges and underestimate the efforts that had already happened or started to elevate HBCUs before his arrival. HBCUs were not a collective corpse before God told Sanders to descend from his 100-acre ranch in Texas to Jackson, Mississippi, and breathe life into them.
But that didn’t stop longtime sports journalist Larry Fitzgerald Sr. from recklessly making light of the Jackson water crisis on Twitter to praise Mike Zimmer for landing an assistant coach job at Colorado. Sanders himself — during the introductory press conference at CU last week — lauded the lack of crime in Boulder, a comment many took as a shot at Jackson.
Mike Zimmer Vikings ex Head Coach will be Deion Sanders defensive coordinator at Colorado after going 12-0 at Jackson State-He gets 💰💰Pay raise and fresh clean drinking water 💦.
— Larry Fitzgerald Sr. (@FitzBeatSr) December 7, 2022
There was no caution when some falsely suggested Sanders was justified to leave JSU because he was underpaid (even though he was the highest-paid coach in the SWAC) and that the school was involved in money laundering, according to a random unfounded Facebook post.
It seems there is loyalty to Sanders instead of the Black institution as a whole.
Tearing down one to build up another is happening. But the football coach isn’t crumbling.
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