Posted on September 6, 2019

It’s Time for Black Athletes to Leave White Colleges

Jemele Hill, Atlantic, October 2019


The NCAA reported $1.1 billion in revenue for its 2017 fiscal year. Most of that money comes from the Division I men’s-basketball tournament. In 2016, the NCAA extended its television agreement with CBS Sports and Turner Broadcasting through 2032 — an $8.8 billion deal. About 30 Division I schools each bring in at least $100 million in athletic revenue every year. Almost all of these schools are majority white — in fact, black men make up only 2.4 percent of the total undergraduate population of the 65 schools in the so-called Power Five athletic conferences. Yet black men make up 55 percent of the football players in those conferences, and 56 percent of basketball players.

Black athletes have attracted money and attention to the predominantly white universities that showcase them. Meanwhile, black colleges are struggling. Alabama’s athletic department generated $174 million in the 2016–17 school year, whereas the HBCU that generated the most money from athletics that year, Prairie View A&M, brought in less than $18 million. {snip}

Why should this matter to anyone beyond the administrators and alumni of the HBCUs themselves? Because black colleges play an important role in the creation and propagation of a black professional class. Despite constituting only 3 percent of four-year colleges in the country, HBCUs have produced 80 percent of the black judges, 50 percent of the black lawyers, 50 percent of the black doctors, 40 percent of the black engineers, 40 percent of the black members of Congress, and 13 percent of the black CEOs in America today. {snip}

In a country where the racial wealth gap remains enormous — the median white household has nearly 10 times the wealth of the median black household, and the rate of white homeownership is about 70 percent higher than that of black homeownership — institutions that nurture a black middle class are crucial. And when these institutions are healthy, they bring economic development to the black neighborhoods that surround them.

Moreover, some black students feel safer, both physically and emotionally, on an HBCU campus — all the more so as racial tensions have risen in recent years. {snip} Perhaps partly for this reason, black students’ graduation rates at HBCUs are notably higher than black students’ at other colleges when controlling for factors such as income and high-school success.

Top black athletes used to go to black colleges. In fact, until the Brown v. Board of Education decision, in 1954, Jim Crow and segregation made black colleges pretty much the only destination for black athletes. Even into the 1970s and ’80s, some HBCU alums were achieving Hall of Fame–level greatness in basketball (Willis Reed, Grambling State ’64; Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, Winston-Salem State ’67) and football (Walter Payton, Jackson State ’75; Jerry Rice, Mississippi Valley State ’84). But the reason black athletes today don’t choose FAMU over Oregon, or Hampton over Duke, is obvious: Their chances of making it to the pros as a high draft pick, and of winning lucrative endorsement deals, are enhanced by going to the predominantly white schools that sit atop the college-sports world. Even for the majority of players, whose prospects of a professional sports career are remote, the lure of playing in championships — in giant stadiums with luxurious training facilities, in front of millions of television viewers — is strong. Clemson is only 6 percent black, but it’s won two of the past three national football championships and has a $55 million football complex. North Carolina A&T, a few hours north, is 78 percent black. And while the Aggies have won the HBCU national championship in three of the past four seasons, the program can’t offer what Clemson can in terms of resources and exposure; A&T’s entire endowment is worth barely as much as Clemson’s football complex. Presented with a choice between Clemson and North Carolina A&T, most high-school athletes would choose Clemson — whose starting lineup, not incidentally, is majority black.

But what if a group of elite athletes collectively made the choice to attend HBCUs?

Black athletes overall have never had as much power and influence as they do now. While NCAA rules prevent them from making money off their own labor at the college level, they are essential to the massive amount of revenue generated by college football and basketball. This gives them leverage, if only they could be moved to use it.


Some people point to September 12, 1970, as the day HBCUs lost their corner on the nation’s best black football talent. That’s the day an all-white Alabama team got their asses handed to them by the University of Southern California’s heralded African American triumvirate of quarterback Jimmy Jones and running backs Sam “Bam” Cunningham and Clarence Davis. After that, football programs in the Deep South realized that if they were going to stay competitive, they would have to recruit black players. (In other areas of the country, colleges had already begun to recruit African Americans: The Michigan State team that fought Notre Dame to a 10–10 draw in the fall of 1966 — a contest that many still consider to be the best college football game of all time — had 20 black players.)

In the era before big television contracts, HBCUs more or less had a monopoly on black athletes, because there was little money to be made from them. But when college sports became big business, the major sports schools proved to be relentless in recruiting players away from HBCUs. {snip}

The flight of black athletes to majority-white colleges has been devastating to HBCUs. Consider Grambling State, in Louisiana, home of arguably the most storied football program in HBCU history. A 57 percent decrease in state funding over a period of several years had made it difficult for Grambling to maintain its football facilities. In 2013, things got so bad that players — fed up with the school’s dilapidated facilities and the long bus trips to road games, as well as the firing of the coach — staged a boycott that led to them forfeiting a game. Though the walkout prompted Grambling to spend $30,000 on a new weight room, and it has since raised nearly $2 million for upgrades to its Eddie Robinson Stadium, the ordeal was embarrassing for the university.

Today, most blue-chip recruits in football or basketball don’t even consider attending black colleges. This has forced HBCUs to become proficient at identifying and developing diamonds in the rough — prospects who were passed over or jettisoned by bigger programs. {snip}

To attract the best football and basketball players in the nation, HBCUs have to spend money to improve their facilities — but to generate the athletic revenue necessary to improve their facilities, the colleges need more of the best players.


But what if young black athletes were to force that change?

“NCAA athletics generate billions in profit annually, and Black athletes are the prized workforce,” reads the mission statement of an organization called the Power Moves Initiative. “However, African Americans are not stakeholders at predominantly white universities and corporations that profit from our talent. The system must be disrupted to redirect the stream of wealth.”

Robert Buck, who attended two black colleges (Alabama State and FAMU), got the idea to start the Power Moves Initiative after organizing the 5th Quarter Classic, a now-defunct annual game between HBCUs held in Mobile, Alabama. He saw how the black colleges featured in the classic were generating millions for Mobile, a city that is 50.4 percent black. It bothered Buck that other black athletes were generating such money for predominantly white schools, and that other black communities weren’t receiving the same benefits.

“It’s almost like we were being used,” Buck told me.

He is convinced that steering high-school athletes of color toward HBCUs can help invigorate African American communities and generate black success. {snip}

There’s a model for how young black athletes could leverage their talent and financial power. In the early 1990s, five high-school basketball players — two each from Texas and Detroit, and one from Chicago — got to know one another playing in all-star games and basketball camps. They enrolled together at the University of Michigan, and partway through their first season they were all starting for the team. Becoming famous as the Fab Five, they reached the championship game of the March Madness tournament in 1992 and 1993, and four of them went on to play in the NBA. What if instead of enrolling at Michigan they’d gone to Howard, taking the Bison, rather than the Wolverines, to the Final Four?

A single high-profile recruit enrolling at an HBCU would get people’s attention. {snip} Three or four of them could spark a national conversation — and, in basketball, could generate a championship run that attracted fans and money. Now imagine five or 10 or 20 — or a few dozen. That could quickly propel a few black schools into the athletic empyrean, and change the place of HBCUs in American culture.

It wouldn’t be that hard. Many of the top high-school players, especially in basketball, know one another from Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) tournaments and all-star games, as the Fab Five did. If a few of them got together at HBCUs, they could redraw the landscape of college basketball.


Bringing elite athletic talent back to black colleges would have potent downstream effects. It would boost HBCU revenues and endowments; stimulate the economy of the black communities in which many of these schools are embedded; amplify the power of black coaches, who are often excluded from prominent positions at predominantly white institutions; and bring the benefits of black labor back to black people. {snip}

If promising black student athletes chose to attend HBCUs in greater numbers, they would, at a minimum, bring some welcome attention and money to beleaguered black colleges, which invested in black people when there was no athletic profit to reap. More revolutionarily, perhaps they could disrupt the reign of an “amateur” sports system that uses the labor of black folks to make white folks rich.