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In February for Black History Month, USA TODAY Sports is publishing the series 28 Black Stories in 28 Days. We examine the issues, challenges and opportunities Black athletes and sports officials continue to face after the nation’s reckoning on race two years ago.
Basketball star Makur Maker was inspired to commit to Howard University in 2020 after the deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, becoming the highest-ranked recruit to commit to a historically Black college in at least a decade at the time.
"I need to make the HBCU movement real so that others will follow," Maker tweeted in July 2020. Months later, Jackson State University hired Pro Football Hall of Famer Deion Sanders as the head football coach in September 2020.
In December, five-star cornerback Travis Hunter decommitted from Florida State and committed to join Sanders' Jackson State. As the nation's No. 1 overall football prospect, he marks the highest-rated commitment in Jackson State and historically Black college or university history.
Will this decision have a domino effect?
HBCUs are often overlooked by top recruits in basketball, football and other sports for the resources and exposure offered by predominantly white institutions. But the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement and push toward supporting Black-owned businesses have motivated some Black athletes to use their talents to strengthen Black communities.
"Historically Black Colleges have a rich history in football," Hunter tweeted on Dec. 15. "I want to be part of that history, and more, I want to be part of that future."
Maker, Hunter and Sanders' bold choice to join HBCU programs instantly boosted the publicity and interest of their respective universities, in hopes of others following suit. But are more Black athletes choosing HBCU sports?
The history of HBCUs
Until desegregation, HBCUs were once the only place a Black athlete could pursue a collegiate career. Predominantly Black colleges have produced many sports legends, including some that are considered the greatest of all time in their sports:
Basketball: Hall of Famer Earl Monroe (Winston-Salem State)
Track and field: Olympic runner Wilma Rudolph (Tennessee State University), Olympic runner Edwin Moses (Morehouse College)
Tennis: Hall of Famer Althea Gibson (Florida A&M)
Football: Hall of Famer and MVP Walter Payton (Jackson State), Hall of Famer Jerry Rice (Mississippi Valley State), NFL MVP Steve McNair (Alcorn State University), Hall of Famer Michael Strahan (Texas Southern University) and Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe (Savannah State) University)
"No regrets," Sharpe said about attending an HBCU on FOX Sport's "Undisputed" in June 2020. "One of the greatest decisions I’ve ever made."
But as predominantly white institutions, especially those in the South, started to integrate Black athletes into their programs to stay competitive, most of the top talent was recruited away from HBCUs over the years with the promise of better funding and more opportunities to make it to the next level.
Have HBCUs become more attractive to elite prep athletes?
Yes and no.
Despite the rich history and legacy of HBCU sports, the schools have struggled to attract top athletes. But without elite players, historically Black colleges cannot generate the exposure and revenue needed to improve their programs.
It's a Catch-22, but that's slowly changing.
Sanders has leveraged his star power to revitalize Jackson State and HBCUs. Not only has Sanders helped the Tigers' athletic department generate the equivalency of $185 million in advertising and exposure less than a year after he was hired, the Hall of Famer has recruited elite players that Jackson State couldn't attract before. That includes players originally recruited by powerhouses University of South California, Florida, Florida State, Tennessee, Mississippi State, Auburn, Missouri, South Carolina, Louisville and University of Central Florida, among others.
In December, Hunter made a statement by walking away from the storied Florida State football program, which has won three national championships and produced three Heisman winners, for the opportunity to play at Jackson State. He said picking a historically Black college over a powerhouse will open the possibility for other athletes to consider if "HBCUs may be everything you want and more."
"I am making this decision so that I can light the way for others to follow," Hunter tweeted. "Make it a little easier for the next player to recognize that HBCUs may be everything you want and more: an exciting college experience, a vital community, and a life-changing place to play football."
— Travis Hunter (@TravisHunterJr) December 15, 2021
'A seat at the table'
Landing Hunter isn't just a win for Jackson State, but for all HBCUs, as it guarantees more attention and more opportunities to level the playing field. It also exemplifies to teen athletes that there's more than one route to be successful.
"As a coach who watched for a long time us get left out of conversations and not have a seat at the table, we’re starting to be there in many regards," Florida A&M coach Willie Simmons told the Clarion Ledger, part of the USA TODAY Network. "I think it’s a testament to (Sanders) and some other people. He’s not alone in that fight but he’s definitely been a positive influence."
Tennessee State University similarly named Eddie George, the 1995 Heisman winner from Ohio State University, the football head coach in April.
Tennessee State athletic director Mikki Allen told the Associated Press in November that the university's enrollment is already up, and four-and five-star recruits are looking closely at George and the Tigers. Tennessee State hosted 317 recruits one weekend.
After serving as George's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Tennessee State this season, Hue Jackson, the former head coach of the Cleveland Browns and Oakland Raiders, landed a head coaching job at Grambling State University in December.
“Hue is a professional and winner in all areas of life and a mentor to some of the best professional football players in the NFL,” athletic director Traveon Scott said.
Contributing: Mark Giannotto, Memphis Commercial Appeal; Khari Thompson, Clarion Ledger; The Associated Press
Ex-NFL coach Hue Jackson to take over at Grambling
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Travis Hunter commits to JSU: Are more Black athletes choosing HBCUs?