Deion Sanders is doing what virtually every college football coach in America would do if given a chance: He is leaving success at a smaller school with limited options for the promised land of better facilities, better support, a deeper bench of more talented players and a chance to play on a bigger stage.
Oh, and that raise from somewhere in the range of $300,000 to a reported $6 million a season at the University of Colorado doesn’t hurt.
Good for Sanders.
But while I’m happy for him, I feel a sense of mourning.
That’s because of the context. Sanders was the coach at Mississippi’s Jackson State University, a historically Black institution with a deep football history that had fallen on hard times. He arrived in 2020, a year of heated discourse and protest over racism and police brutality in the United States, prompted by the police killing of George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis.
In the sports world, Sanders’s move to Jackson State was a signal event that heralded possibilities:
More opportunities for Black coaches, who have largely been shut out of leading teams by predominantly white institutions, but who have received more love and respect at historically Black colleges and universities.
A steady stream of top African American players heading to H.B.C.U.s.
A rise to something like equality in respect, competitiveness, TV exposure and maybe even financial support for Black schools, which have been long underfunded compared with predominantly white counterparts.
But 2020 now feels like a distant memory. The promise of that year has faded throughout much of America. In 2022, there seemed to be more protests over gas prices than ongoing social injustice.
The change in fortunes for Black colleges, their athletic departments and football teams because of Sanders have been minimal at best. The idea that H.B.C.U.s were going to compete regularly anytime soon for the best Black high school players and other celebrity coaches has dwindled.
And now Sanders is gone — and the expectation is that he will take coaches and some top recruits with him. His departure is a blow to a dream of uplift that was probably too gilded by hope than reality. His move is understandable, but that doesn’t mean it can’t hurt.
The Importance of Historically Black Colleges
H.B.C.U.s, or historically Black colleges and universities, have long nurtured excellence, and a sense of pride and belonging among students.
- Growing Visibility: Thanks to star hirings and generous donations, H.B.C.U.s are having a moment. But not every institution is benefiting.
- Studio Art Programs: Thanks to new forms of financial support, H.B.C.U.s are starting to expand their offerings, with the goal of fostering a new generation of artists.
- A New Generation: Historically Black colleges are increasingly becoming the first choice for some of the nation’s most sought-after talent.
- Campus Spirit: Eight Howard University students were called to document a meaningful part of campus culture. Here is what they chose.
Some critics have called Sanders a sellout.
Some see his move to a primarily white university whose football team has not significantly won in decades as a slap in the face to historically Black colleges like Jackson State.
Still others have said they understood the move while deriding Sanders for having said God led him to Jackson State, only to end up ditching the school after three seasons. Was leaving part of God’s plan, too?
There are good points in those arguments, but it can’t be forgotten that Sanders successfully turned around Jackson State football, returning the team to a form resembling its old glory and lifting, albeit briefly, the school’s public profile. He will be on the sidelines for one last game as his undefeated team plays another H.B.C.U., North Carolina Central, in Atlanta’s Celebration Bowl on Dec. 17.
It was always going to be close to impossible to keep Sanders at Jackson State if he consistently won. Everyone involved knew the deal, and Sanders talked openly about listening to other offers. This week, the school has thanked him profusely for his short-tenured run. Sanders is who he has always been: a sports mercenary with a carnival barker’s bearing, a roadside preacher’s panache and a talent for winning.
“Usually when God sends me to a place, he sends me to be a conduit of change,” he said during an introductory news conference/sermon.
I mourn for our H.B.C.U.s. They have been chronically underfunded since their inception in the late 1800s, deprived of proper resources from state legislatures and the federal government as more and more money pours into majority white schools. The project of higher education at Black colleges remains stuck in what feels like a long and unalterable grind for survival. The struggling sports teams at H.B.C.U.s are certainly part of that grind.
Among Black folks, many of us wanted to believe Sanders would stick around for longer than this, and now are left with a particularly painful hurt because the Black community so often finds itself on the outskirts, so often feels abandoned by bold guarantees.
Sanders’s jump to a wealthy, white school after promising the world to his young Black athletes and their families is yet another reminder that Black people, in particular, have always had to take assurances with a healthy grain of skeptical apprehension — even when they come from people in our communities.
In hindsight, what made any of us think a former player with the status and ego of Prime Time would stay for more than a trickle of seasons? Nothing in Sanders’s past suggested such constancy. Sanders played on four teams in nine seasons as an outfielder in Major League Baseball. During his Hall of Fame N.F.L. career, he played for five teams in 14 seasons. Sanders won a Super Bowl with the San Francisco 49ers and then another with the 49ers’ hated rival, the Dallas Cowboys. Before accepting the Jackson State job, he had left the NFL Network for Barstool Sports.
Moving on is part of the Sanders schtick.
In this way, he has once again found a perfect profession.
What college football coaches are not looking to maximize their earnings and chances of winning by heading to a school with more money, more television revenue and the opportunity to win a national title?
Nick Saban went from Michigan State to Louisiana State to the Miami Dolphins to Alabama, looking for the same edge. Now, of course, he is the premier coach at America’s foremost college football factory — the one whose example sets the tone.
Sanders helming Jackson State was a mission with a unique resonance for H.B.C.U students and the players on his team. That set him apart. But he was also no different than the vast majority of his coaching peers across America.
With few notable exceptions, they are salesmen. They will tell you what you want to hear to fulfill their immediate needs.
When their needs change, all they told you last month gets shoved far into the background and forgotten. They switch gears and change everything.
How perfect for Sanders, who has cloaked himself in various public personas since his college days at Florida State: “Must be the Money” Prime, Preacher Prime, Wise Sage Prime, Savior Prime, etc., etc.
In 2020, he “rebranded himself as a race man,” said Mark Anthony Neal, chair of Duke’s African and African American Studies department. “He presented himself as someone looking out for the future of H.B.C.U. schools. He said he would be better positioned than anybody to protect the legacy of H.B.C.U.s and that your Black child should choose not to go to Alabama but to come to Jackson State. He would give them the kind of care and nurturing they deserve that they wouldn’t get from a white coach.”
Added Neal: “The question was how long would he want to do that?”
Not too terribly long, as we now know — though it’s true that he can now provide that nurturing to the Black players at Colorado, including the few who will follow their coach to Boulder.
For all the big things Sanders is saying now — and yes, of course he is once again cloaking his new role as divinely inspired — the cold calculation of big-time college football will soon enough confront him.
If he struggles at Colorado, he’ll get sent packing.
If Sanders wins, chances are he will be gone then, too, off to the supposedly brighter pastures of another team.
And as all this unfolds, historically Black schools like Jackson State and their football teams will grind on, struggling to survive, perhaps a little more wary of self-professed saviors.