Can NIL help lift Black colleges? At heart of big-time athletics debate: 'That's not the HBCU mission'

JACKSON, MISSISSIPPI APRIL 24: JSU Deion
Deion Sanders has put a massive spotlight on Jackson State since he became its head football coach. (Aron Smith/University Communications/Jackson State University via Getty Images)

Most problems don't have perfect solutions.

Watching longtime former NCAA football coach and current U.S. Senator Tommy Tuberville belch out some heinous racism at a recent campaign event, seeing Jackson State football coach Deion Sanders on "60 Minutes" and watching Bronny James agree to several NIL deals have all had me thinking about Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and how vital they are.

Young Black athletes can help bolster these institutions, while reaping the benefits of being at places where they're seen, valued and nurtured as full human beings, not easily replaceable field hands whose sole function is to keep money flowing into the pockets of coaches who smile in the faces of their families during recruiting but disparage them behind closed doors.

HBCUs used to be athletics powerhouses, especially in football. Roughly 10 percent of the players enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame came from HBCU programs, with four schools — Jackson State, Grambling State, Morgan State and South Carolina State — boasting four alums each while more recent high-profile programs like Tennessee and Florida have fewer.

Those players were at those schools largely because they had no choice. Racial segregation meant they couldn't go to predominantly white institutions (PWIs). Once that began to change, former Alabama Gov. George Wallace and the University of Alabama's board of trustees allowed Black players to play for the Crimson Tide.

Using free Black labor worked out well for the state in the past, so why not bring back the practice? History certainly has repeated itself given that Bama was undefeated and back in the Sugar Bowl three years after a famous — and sometimes viewed through a mythical lens — loss to USC in 1970 and has won nine national titles since. (And no, a scholarship is not "getting paid." The enslaved people who worked the cotton fields in Alabama got free room and board too.)

HBCUs are one of the few enduring positives from the all-too-brief Reconstruction Era, the drop of time when this country actually did some work toward its high-minded ideal of all men being created equal. But the combination of massive cuts in state and federal investment in public higher education and the enduring legacy of anti-Black racism in America in general, particularly in the former slave-holding states, mean that nearly all HBCUs are operating on shoestring budgets.

The state of Mississippi won't invest in new pipes in its capital city (the population of which is three-quarters Black) and makes it essentially impossible for its neediest residents to receive an incredibly modest $260 a month for necessities like food or shelter. So hoping it will budget the needed funds for its historically Black schools, Jackson State, Alcorn State and Mississippi Valley State, to educate and uplift young residents it has worked for generations to systematically marginalize is a pipe dream.

And since the racial wealth gap has grown even wider, these schools don't have scores of wealthy alums, and as a result endowments at HBCUs are a fraction of those at PWIs. According to data from fiscal year 2020, only four of the 101 HBCUs have endowments over $250 million. There were 114 PWI schools with endowments over $1 billion.

This is where the imperfect solution to the problem of keeping HBCUs solvent and thriving comes into play: For a couple of years, put as much money as can be spared, begged and borrowed into the athletics facilities to get more five- and four-star recruits to follow in the footsteps of Travis Hunter, Makur Maker and Mo'ne Davis. Broadcast and sponsorship money will follow the talent. Then put it back into all corners of the schools. If and when some of those athletes reap big paydays in the pros, a number will give back as well.

That's putting it simplistically, but that's the crux of it.

Optical problem of putting athletics at front of HBCU line

Encouraging Black student athletes to attend schools built for them isn't a new idea. The great Bill Rhoden wrote about this years ago in his book "Forty Million Dollar Slaves" and Jemele Hill did it more recently in a piece for The Atlantic.

The optics aren't admittedly great. And it's usually something I'd be against, taking from academics to give to athletics. But well-meaning billionaires like MacKenzie Scott are not the answer, and shouldn't be counted on to give multi-million dollar gifts annually or every other year.

"It's a tough one because that's not the HBCU mission," Louis Moore, professor of history at Grand Valley State University and author of "We Will Win the Day: The Civil Rights Movement, the Black Athlete and the Quest for Equality" told Yahoo Sports. "I think it's a bad look to pump, let's say, $500 million into football when everything else isn't upgraded, hoping that pays off.

"Now, I think it would work if the companies get involved, and that's the interesting thing about Deion — he tapped into Walmart. You might not have to necessarily have to take money from other places if you can get companies to do that. But at the same time, if the other things are crumbling, it's a bad look."

Moore is right, of course. We agree though that HBCUs need something before many of them disappear.

"There's not [an easy answer]. There's not. And I think the most interesting thing about it is that we've been having these same conversations and there's never really been a change," Moore said.

In the wake of George Floyd's murder by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, corporations all over America pledged money to help uplift Black communities. How many of those pledges were followed up on with actual disbursements? It's easy to say you'll support something but another to do it. And hey, for those corporate execs who laughingly claim there aren't Black people to hire, investing in HBCUs basically guarantees there would be.

It also may be time to hold the NCAA accountable to some extent. "I think the other question is, what does the NCAA owe to these teams for years of discrimination?" Moore added. "Because up until 1984, the NCAA controlled the TV contracts, and who gets on TV, and it was rare that a Black institution got on TV, so you're not getting the exposure, you're not getting the payouts. It's a combination of that, it's lack of state funding — there's so many things going on that really have over the years since integration have really hurt these schools from competing economically."

Better facilities will attract higher-caliber recruits. It won't work for every young athlete, but it won't hurt. Focusing on the incredible work HBCUs do despite their shoestring budgets, still accounting for 17 percent of all bachelor's degrees and nearly a quarter of all STEM-related bachelor's conferred to Black graduates, has to be part of it. And playing up the reality that a not-small percentage of white coaches like Tuberville and former Iowa strength coach Chris Doyle as well as a not-small number of fans don't seem to give a damn about Black people as human beings, has to be part of it too.

Players can be just another jersey at a Power Five program or be part of a renaissance and ensure that schools that have educated so many incredible people endure.

From Deion to Eddie George to Bronny James, star power matters

While I remain skeptical of Sanders, his effect on Jackson State in just two years is undeniable. On his ask, Walmart built the Tigers a new practice field. The Southwestern Athletic Conference has picked up major new sponsors. A year ago, Visit Jackson, the city's marketing arm, estimated an economic impact of $30 million due to the popularity of the Tigers and their success in 2021.

Not everyone brings Sanders' juice. Pro Bowl running back Eddie George, in his second season as head coach at Tennessee State, isn't as boisterous as Sanders and doesn't appear (as Sanders does) to have cameras documenting his every coaching moment. He hasn't yet landed a four-star recruit, but his presence has led to a significant spike in home attendance, including over 22,000 at Nissan Stadium for TSU's homecoming win over Bethune-Cookman earlier this month.

High school students signing NIL deals play a role here too. Sponsorship deals can follow athletes wherever they go. In recent weeks, Bronny James signed deals with two major brands. Can you imagine if he matriculated at, say, Morgan State, and what that could mean for the school and the seven other HBCUs in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference? Even if James stayed for only two years it could change the fortunes of both. ESPN would inevitably air some of the Bears' games, the team would be better, and the rise in attention would exponentially help, including drawing athletes who figure if Morgan State was good enough for LeBron James' son, it's good enough for them too.

"Maybe having Bronny not only brings attention but other people do it," Moore said. "It's not a knock on anybody but we're a copycat society, right? If it becomes cool to do these things, especially a basketball player, and now with the NILs, I can still get my money, I can be at the vanguard of change, I can have all this attention, it might be worth it.

"I think that's the thing that Deion brings, that Prime Time, that coolness factor. Jackson State seems cool. I think that's the change that someone like a Bronny could bring. Maybe he's not great, maybe he doesn't get you to the NCAA championship, but that's the vibe he'll bring."

Bronny James, second from right, takes in an Ohio State football game in September with his NBA superstar father, LeBron James, second from left. (Kyle Robertson-USA TODAY Sports)
Bronny James, second from right, takes in an Ohio State football game in September with his NBA superstar father, LeBron James, second from left. (Kyle Robertson-USA TODAY Sports)

There is one other thing to consider, and that's who's around some of these athletes. Moore notes that some kids will have friends, family and advisers around them dissuading them from going to an HBCU over a well-funded Power Five program because they won't get to be on TV as much, or the weight room doesn't have custom-logoed benches, or some other reason.

Unless and until big improvements come, players have to be OK with facilities that aren't shiny and newer, "but the tradeoff is community, is culture, is exposure — something you can't replicate. But you have to have somebody explain that to you. And it's hard to explain that to an 18-, 19-year-old kid," Moore said.

Professional athletes have shown love to HBCUs in varying ways in recent years. In 2019, Golden State star Steph Curry committed to fund men's and women's golf teams at Howard University for six years, and it is now competing at the Division I level. The Phoenix Suns' Chris Paul has had numerous initiatives centered on promoting HBCUs, from a four-team, two-day showcase played in Suns' home arena to helping with scholarships to producing a documentary series that focuses on different teams at different schools. And two-time NBA champion J.R. Smith has been loud and proud since enrolling at North Carolina A&T last year and joining its men's golf team.

The younger generation has to follow to help ensure the viability of these wonderful institutions or we may lose them.

It's an imperfect proposal, but if it works, it can be a win for pretty much everyone involved in the long run.