Hours before Jackson State University won its second consecutive SWAC football championship, before its celebrity coach caught a plane in the dead of night to roam with the Buffaloes of Colorado, Tiger fans joined in unison to serenade Deion Sanders with a bit of King George’s “Keep On Rollin’.”
“If you wanna go baby, go ‘head walk out the door, one thing you gotta remember, is one monkey don’t stop no show,” many fans in attendance jeered, with a tone that sounded jovial, albeit jilted.
Depending on where one stands with Sanders’ decision to take the job as Colorado’s head coach, he’s either a savior who did all he could for Jackson State and historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), or a sellout who used Black college football as a stepping stone to the resources (and money!) of a predominantly white institution (PWI).
Respectfully, I think most people – Sanders included – have made him the epicenter of this experiment for the last two years. Now is a good time to widen our collective gaze and look beyond Coach Prime and athletics, and into the intent and mission of HBCUs.
The mission of Black schools is a radical one within the framework of American history and politics: to educate Black children. It’s no coincidence that a host of Black schools were established in the years following Reconstruction, nor is it a coincidence that a host of Black schools have been heavily underfunded by state (and by extension, federal) governments.
In short, we can’t have a conversation about HBCUs, certainly not Black college athletics, without talking about the mutual history of underfunding and integration.
“Equal but separate,” the segregationist doctrine we commonly note as separate but equal, was always a misnomer. Black institutions – hell, Black people – would always be denied monetary resources and governmental access under a racist regime. Integration presumably, and that presumption is working double overtime, allowed Black people to engage in white spaces, or more appropriately, allowed Black folks within the proximity of resources only allowed to white people. This allowance did not change the cultural underfunding of Black spaces and Black people.
This is the crux of where Sanders’ decision to leave JSU hurts. Whether intentionally or not, Coach Prime is perpetuating the assumption that Black schools are “second-class” to PWIs. It’s not just hurtful that he will likely transport the resources from a Black school to a white school in a town with a microscopic Black population. It’s the callousness with which he is doing it, from his abruptness after winning the SWAC championship on Saturday, to the lack of care in which he addresses players at both JSU and Colorado in terms of the transfer portal.
Undoubtedly, some people will say Sanders’ move is for the culture. Sanders himself said in the coaching ranks, you’re either “elevated or terminated.” Absolutes such as those make me wonder whose “culture” is that? Capitalist culture? Football culture? Reminds me of Kendrick Lamar’s commentary on culture on “The Heart Part 5”.
Personally, I believe our perspective of culture has become far too individualistic and materialistic. That myopic view is how people can simplify Coach Prime’s decision by essentially saying it’s a matter of a pay raise. Sanders’ contract at Colorado is a product of HBCU uplift, contrary to the thoughts of those who see his presence at JSU as a one-sided benefit. Jackson State gave Sanders a place to cultivate his coaching prowess when PWIs weren’t checking for him.
When it comes to HBCUs, community has always been more important than capitalism. It is certainly the community that has sustained our beloved institutions. I appreciate this more so as the son of HBCU graduates and a proud Florida A&M alum. I think about the tireless efforts of my former academic advisor, Frances McMillon. In hindsight, she stood in the gap for my scholarship brothers and sisters, people whom I share kinship with more than 20 years later. She represents so many Black women in the HBCU space – nurturing and challenging students who will soon become professionals.
I think about those mothers, I think about foundational Black historians like Carter G. Woodson, the “father of Black history,” and I shake my head when I hear people say Sanders “doesn’t owe Jackson State or HBCUs anything.” It’s why I bristled at his perpetual criticisms of HBCU “tradition,” because they came from a place of capitalism, not a place of care. The distinction between Sanders and HBCU faculty and staff members of tenure isn’t just investment of time and tutelage over many years. It’s about trust in something bigger than yourself.
Being fair, Coach Prime made it clear that he would leave for a PWI at the first opportunity he received. I didn’t need him to make that declaration, because he said nearly 30 years ago that money would change his wardrobe, his phone number and his address.
Must be the money, he said. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy.