Posted on December 7, 2023

Why Deion Sanders’ Success in Colorado Matters So Much to Black Fans

Curtis Bunn, NBC, November 30, 2023

Deion Sanders’ Colorado Buffaloes did not make it to Pac 12 championship on Friday; they lost their last six games. Sanders’ star quarterback, his son Shedeur Sanders, did not finish the season because of an injury. Three top recruits decommitted from joining the program. A coach quit and at least one player entered the transfer portal.

So why is Boulder, Colorado’s notoriously thin air thick with optimism? And why did Sanders become such an enormous deal in the first place?

The answers are many and they are all about Sanders, 56, an all-time NFL great whose confluence of audacity, tenderness and introspection — played out to millions on social media — inspired a legion of followers, countless of them with faint interest in college football until he took over in Boulder. His influence has been so palpable this season that Sports Illustrated named him “Sportsperson of the Year” on Thursday, a nod to his impact beyond the games, as the end of the season did not match the beginning.

Despite all that did not go right in his first season after controversially leaving Jackson State University, a historically Black school, Black fans in particular have rallied around “Coach Prime.” He high-stepped into Boulder, a city with a population of just 1.3% Black people, reinvigorated a downtrodden fan base and built a national coalition of support.

“When it was announced Deion was being hired, it’s like the company that hadn’t shown much effort toward diversity doing something really cool,” said Ellen Brandon Calhoun, a 1990 graduate of the university and executive at Disney in Orlando. “So I was really excited about that. The school has changed dramatically since I was there, but the diversity story has not changed.”

Calhoun said there were about 200 Black students — among 23,000 students — during her four years at the University of Colorado; that’s less than 1%. Now, of the 37,00 students at Colorado, just 2.7%, or 1,003, are Black.

In 2017, National Geographic called Boulder “The happiest place in the United States.” That distinction was disputed in the 2023 documentary, “This is (Not) Who We Are.” Its tagline reads: “The happiest place in America. . . said no Black person ever.”

“There was all this racial profiling by police; athletes were being harassed,” Calhoun said. “Not saying there was this intense Southern racial environment, but race was an issue for sure. So to do something like hiring Deion is so decisively Black culture. He’s become an icon in Black culture. He represents more than excellence in his sport. So, in general, we cheer for Black excellence anywhere, but especially where it hasn’t been before, like in Boulder.”

Sanders’ magnetism — his inspirational monologues, direct addressing of racism and reinforcement of parental values — “makes you want to support him and the Buffaloes,” Calhoun said. “You want to be in it. That is the appeal of what Deion has brought. And we embrace him and adore his focus on parenting and fatherhood and raising young men. You put that with his arrogance and bravado and it’s super compelling.”


And that’s where Sanders’ true power lies, where he connects with Black people, according to Christopher K. Bass, a forensic psychologist and associate professor at Clark Atlanta University. {snip}


He likened the connection of Sanders to the Obamas.

“We felt connected to that family, like we were related to them,” Bass said. “So when one does well, we all feel like we’re riding on that same train.”


That defiance as a Black man with a national platform endears Sanders to the community, whether he’s trying to or not. “Here we have a brother who is not bending,” Bass, the psychologist, said. “He’s become an archetype for the hero in Black America today, which is what everybody wants. We want to root for something bigger than ourselves, because he represents all of us. Deion has made that leap, that connection—and for Black people, that’s a big deal.”