Jemele Hill: HBCUs Need Elite Athletes. What Would Happen If They All Decided To Go To Black Schools?

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Written by Ann Brown
Jemele
Jemele Hill is seen at the 2019 Essence Festival at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center on Friday, July 5, 2019, in New Orleans. (Photo by Donald Traill/Invision/AP)

The Atlantic writer Jemele Hill thinks it is time for Black athletes to come back to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Because top Black athletes get recruited by white colleges, it’s hurting HBCUs, which for the most part have been struggling finally for years.

It’s not like star high school athletes don’t consider HBCUs. But they get lured away by the after-graduation professional potential and even the start-of-the-art facilities white universities can offer over HBCUs.

“In the summer of 2018 Kayvon Thibodeaux, who was then ranked as the top high-school football player in America, visited Florida A&M University, in Tallahassee. When a player of Thibodeaux’s caliber visits a perennial football power—say, Alabama—it’s called Wednesday. But when he visits a historically Black college or university (HBCU) like Florida A&M, it threatens to crack the foundation on which the moneymaking edifice of college sports rests,” Hill wrote.

“I really just wanted to learn the history of FAMU,” Thibodeaux, a defensive end who received a scholarship offer from FAMU while in high school, told Hill. “And I wanted to show there were more opportunities out there than just big-time Division I schools.”

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In the end, Thibodeaux, who had who gushed about the FAMU on social media. went to the University of Oregon. “Nobody wants to eat McDonald’s when you can get filet mignon” is how Thibodeaux described his decision.

It all comes down to money.

“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,” Hill wrote.

While Black athletes dominate the teams at white universities, the white universities are the ones getting rich. “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,” Hill wrote. 

Why is it important that HBCUs benefit from college athletics? Because, noted Hill, they play a vital role in helping build the Black middle class and help in closing the wealth gap. 

It is a fact, that 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. (They have also produced this election cycle’s only Black female candidate for the U.S. presidency: Kamala Harris is a 1986 graduate of Howard University.),” Hill pointed out.

It’s not that top Black athletes never went to HBCUs. There was a time during Jim Crow and segregation when Black colleges were really the only option for Black athletes. This lasted well after the end of segregated school and  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),” Hill wrote. 

The exodus of Black athletes has dramatically affected HBCUs, even  Losuidana’s Grambling State known for its legendary football program in HBCU history. When the school was hit with a 57 percent decrease in state funding Grambling was unable to maintain 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,” Hill wrote. 

There is one organization working to help get top Black athletes back to HBCUs.

The mission statement of the Power Moves Initiative reads: “NCAA athletics generate billions in profit annually, and Black athletes are the prized workforce. 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.”

The organization was founded by Robert Buck, an alum of  two black colleges (Alabama State and FAMU).

Having Black athletes aspiring to go pro select HBCUs as their collegiate hoe could change the game.

As Hill summarized: “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.”