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Opinion: The power of Black athletes denying offers from white schools for historically Black ones

The players are what make the colleges, universities — not the other way around
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ROSALIND LIANG/THE VARSITY
ROSALIND LIANG/THE VARSITY

As Black Lives Matter protests continue in the United States, Canada, and across the globe, the conversation about anti-Black racism has extended to the sports world, with many notable athletes taking action and calling for change. 

While protests, petitions, and social media awareness are valuable, many are realizing that the demand for change needs to expand beyond these forms of activism. Now, a new, important form of protest is rapidly grabbing people’s attention in the sports world: star Black college athletes are considering discontinuing their commitment to perennial predominantly white institutions (PWIs) and, instead playing for historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). 

Race in the NCAA

The Atlantics Jemele Hill wrote a piece about this topic last October, and the conversation has resurfaced again over the past few weeks. The idea gained a lot of popularity when former NBA player Stephen Jackson posted a statement on his Instagram page: “Here’s a silent protest: Pull your Black sons out of [Division I] sports. Send them to HBCUs.” Jackson was a close friend of George Floyd.

For decades, college basketball and football teams, organized by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), have been viewed by many as nothing more than an exploitation of young athletes — many of whom are Black — with no compensation. In a conversation with OZY Media in October, British psychologist and former NCAA and NBA player John Amaechi said that watching NCAA football and basketball is like “witnessing… a twenty-first-century plantation.” 

In 2017, the NCAA reported $1.1 billion in revenue, with 27 of its Division I schools — the majority of which are PWIs — generating at least $100 million every year. The two sports that generate the most revenue for these universities are football and men’s basketball, which consist of 55 per cent and 56 per cent Black players, respectively. Meanwhile, the highest-earning HBCU athletic department, belonging to Prairie View A&M, brings in less than $18 million. 

To be effective, the protest strategy of Black players turning down PWIs for HBCUs must be a collective effort. Indeed, for players who have dreamed about playing for a glamorous NCAA Division I (D-I) program since childhood, rejecting compelling offers from PWIs could be a tough decision.

However, if multiple Black star high school players collectively agree to sign for D-I HBCUs, the balance of power shifts into the hands of these players and schools. The argument that a player can only receive the right level of development, exposure, and traction at a big name D-I school is not necessarily true.

Elevation of HBCUs as tools for Black empowerment

Tamara Tatham is the interim head coach of the U of T Varsity Blues women’s basketball team and a former NCAA player at the University of Massachusetts. In an interview with The Varsity, Coach Tatham said that while she believes every athlete should pursue what is in their own best interest when choosing a college, she recognizes the effect that this move would have on HBCUs. 

”An athlete going there who’s more talented and more sought after,” she noted, “would obviously bring more revenue to a historically Black college.” Tatham continued, “I do think it will make a huge impact for historically Black schools just because they’ll [have] more spotlight and… recognition and just [be] more embedded in the NCAA talk.” 

The impact of elite college athletes playing for HBCUs is twofold. Primarily, it elevates the financial resources and capabilities of Black institutions that lack sufficient funding through athletic revenue and exposure. When these schools are healthy and flourishing, they contribute to the economic advancement of their surrounding Black communities.

Despite accounting for merely three per cent of America’s four-year universities, HBCUs have produced 80 per cent of Black judges, 50 per cent of Black lawyers and doctors, 40 per cent of Black engineers and members of Congress, 25 per cent of Black STEM graduates, and 13 per cent of Black CEOs. Using the revenue generated by their athletes, HBCUs would not only have the ability to enhance their sports programs but also their overall development and empowerment of Black leaders. 

Reclaiming Black talent

“There needs to be a shift in thinking that [the value of Black talent] decreases if it loses its proximity to whiteness,” Bleacher Report’s Taylor Rooks said in a video posted on her Instagram page. The players are what make the schools, not the other way around.

NBA scouts were not attending Duke University games last year simply because it was Duke University — they were there to watch players like Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett, and Cam Reddish. Had these same talents played for Alabama State University, for example, the scouts still would have followed them there, and the media, fans, and brands would have tagged right along. If players truly understand how to leverage their power, the college sports scene has the potential to transform completely. 

In the wake of national outrage, top 2023 recruit Mikey Williams created a lot of buzz after saying that he is seriously considering committing to an HBCU. 

“We control our own narrative… we write our own stories… why does it always have to be the big universities?” Williams wrote on his Instagram page. “Have you ever thought about helping your own people out?? We are the reason that these schools have such big names and such good history..but in the end, what do we get out of it??”

Immediately after making these statements, Williams received offers from several HBCU programs such as Tennessee State University, Norfolk State University, and Texas Southern University. Should he choose to commit to an HBCU, he can showcase that top Black athletes can still thrive in their pursuit of a professional career while also benefiting Black institutions and the broader Black community. 

“Im [sic] 10 toes behind the Black community!” Williams wrote. “When that time does come that I have to narrow my schools down… there will be multiple HBCU’s on that list! And they won’t just be there for show.”

The recent movements also put pressure on PWIs to take further action. When big-name institutions realize the impact of this shift in talent, they will want to display their commitment to fighting against systemic racism and creating an environment that shares the same values and goals as the athletes they hope to re-attract. 

While this will not eliminate racism on its own, it may serve to disrupt a small part of the much greater system that supports discrimination.