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Why 2021 was an indelible year for HBCU sports connections.

January 12, 2022 by  
Filed under Education, News, Opinion, Sports, Weekly Columns

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( It’s a new year and greater focus in HBCUs than in there was in the recent past. Today, there are 107 colleges in America that are identified by the US Department of Education as Historically Black Colleges and Universities also known as HBCUs.  Of those 107, three are currently closed. Last year, was a difficult one for one of the more acclaimed HBCUs, Howard University, has it garnered negative attention for months due to protests by Howard students regarding poor living conditions in dorms and other on-campus facilities. Howard also brought in well-known writers Nikole Hannah-Jones and Ta-Nehisi Coates to be part of the university.

There are hundreds of thousands of students enrolled at HBCUs. Sports has long been an important part of the history of HBCUs with rivalries like Southern and Grambling and Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M on the football field being waged on the gridiron and with the marching bands. Some of the greatest professional athletes in history got their first starts competing in major athletics at HBCUs including Jackson State’s Walter Payton, Mississippi Valley State’s Jerry Rice, Tennessee State’s Wilma Rudolph, and Florida A&M’s Althea Gibson. In 2021, there were a number of striking events relating to HBCUs and sports of various types.

hbcu sports

In January 2021, Jackson State football head coach Deion Sanders made a splash by signing Jackson State’s highest-rated football recruit in school history, wide receiver Trevonte Rucker of Ocala, Florida. The always vocal Sanders has made himself a visible figure nationally in TV ads with Alabama football head coach Nick Saban. However, Jackson State also had a surprisingly terrific year on the football field by finishing with an 11-2 record and being undefeated in their conference. Then, Jackson State and Deion Sanders shocked the college football world in December 2021 when cornerback Travis Hunter, widely regarded as a top five top prospect in the class of 2022, flipped from his commitment to Florida State, Sanders’ alma mater, and instead signed with Jackson State.  “This is the biggest signing day moment in the history of college football,” said Steve Wiltfong, director of national recruiting for 247Sports. Cornerbacks like Trumaine Johnson and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie have had NFL success coming from FCS, small-school football programs but neither was nearly as highly acclaimed as Hunter was in high school. Hunter will be joined at Jackson State by another highly rated recruit in wide receiver Kevin Coleman.

While in March 2021, it was announced that The Black College Football Hall of Fame had established the HBCU Legacy Bowl, a postseason all-star game that will showcase NFL draft-eligible players from historically Black colleges and universities. The first HBCU Legacy Bowl will be played on the Saturday after Super Bowl LVI this year at Yulman Stadium at Tulane University, and broadcast live on NFL Network. College football all-star bowl games like the Senior Bowl are important to raise the profile of NFL hopefuls and the HBCU Legacy Bowl has an impressive list of backers and trustees. Unfortunately, there is more attention needed for HBCU football players as during the 2021 NFL Draft held in from April 29th to May 1st there were zero players from HBCUs drafted of the 259 players drafted. It will take recruiting talent like Deion Sanders has at Jackson State to change that.

Obviously, Michael Jordan did not attend an HBCU after playing at North Carolina but in May 2021, he and Nike’s Jordan Brand gave $1 million to Morehouse College to boost journalism and sports-related studies. There have been some historically great sportswriters including William C. Rhoden and the late Ralph Wiley to come from HBCUs and this donation will assist that. There are definitely more Black sports journalists in recent years and there is a need for more. In August 2021, the Pro Football Hall of Fame celebrated two classes due to the pandemic and one of the inductees was longtime Pittsburgh Steelers personnel executive the late Bill Nunn, who was an HBCU alum of West Virginia State University and did a great job of evaluating talent as well as highlighting HBCU football players into the NFL. Nunn’s collegiate history included being a sportswriter so perhaps Michael Jordan’s Morehouse donation may lead to the next Bill Nunn.

College sports experienced a seismic, colossal shift in July 2021 when new NCAA rules changes went into effect that provided athletes with varying degrees of new protections and opportunities to make money by selling their name, image and likeness rights. A number of HBCU athletes took rightfully took advantage of the new rules. Interestingly, former NBA player J.R. Smith decided to go to college after leaving for the NBA straight out of high school well over a decade ago and he enrolled at North Carolina A&T to play on the school’s golf team. His collegiate golf journey as a 36-year-old college student who has been a millionaire athlete has been as lighthearted as you might think from the man known for one of the biggest gaffes in NBA Playoffs history. He is getting the last laugh after earning a 4.0 GPA after his first semester at North Carolina A&T State University.

Staff Writer; Mark Hines

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