Deion Sanders to Jackson State: A Battle Between What to Believe and What We Know

After a weekend of leaks, speculation, and denials, Pro Football Hall of Fame Member Deion Sanders was introduced today as the head coach of the Jackson State University football team.

In an introductory press conference that was part pep rally and part church revival, ‘Primetime’ promised increased enrollment, higher caliber recruiting and performance, and introduced the “I Believe” tagline for his tenure.

But what can we believe about Sanders’ arrival in Jackson and in the HBCU ranks? As an NFL Hall of Famer, one of the best American athletes to play in two professional sports and an entertainment brand with a reach beyond sports, Sanders is instantly the highest-profile coach to ever be hired by a historically Black institution.

What Sanders means for HBCU culture and what he’ll do for it are two different ideas. JSU has more than won the press conference; Sanders’ personality alone bought the kind of media coverage and affinity that no HBCU could ever dream of affording over a single-day event.

Sanders means, or at least suggests, a growing love affair between HBCUs and prominent, visible African Americans that is peaking in the midst of a global virus and continuing racial strife nationwide. Many of us believe that this will yield a new attitude in the kinds of students and athletes who will be attracted to JSU, a flagship Black institution in Mississippi, and one of the premier Black colleges in the county.

We believe that this will boost private support up for Black college athletic programs, as more high profile athletes might look to follow Sanders in coaching and benefactor relationships.

But we also know things about Primetime. We know that a school that he co-founded shuttered amidst money and management scandals in which he was a central figure of the collapse. We know that his life as a mentor to collegiate and professional players, and his mixed past as a coach, hasn’t endeared him to as many within the National Football League.

We know that less than a month after executives at Barstool Sports, the proud sports home of the alt-right, were unapologetic about racist videos and treatment of Black employees, Sanders signed with the company and confirmed that he would be JSU’s next head coach on Episode 2 of his podcast under the Barstool imprint.

We know that the same struggle both he and JSU had in keeping their conversations out of public view will be the same source for leaks if and when both sides become disenchanted with each other about resources for recruiting and training players, hiring personnel, autonomy, and accountability.

We know that Sanders as both showman and state employee is now the charge of Jackson State’s leadership. The hire suggests that JSU Interim President Thomas Hudson may be the choice as the university’s next permanent leader, and now, his tenure has a heavy and very noticeable weight attached to it.

We also know that JSU is now the center of Mississippi’s athletic universe, and for every reporter and editor who may love to see it, there will be some who have already begun laying the foundation to expose any future issues with NCAA compliance, funding, or leadership grievances.

HBCUs have chronically lacked in bringing big names to their athletics brands, and very few get bigger than Deion Sanders. But the reason Sanders looms large is that he is a proud stalker of attention and payouts for his athletic ability and the audience that craves bravado that can be backed up.

We don’t know if Jackson State or HBCU culture is the right fit for Sanders. And if we balance all that we hope against what history teaches us about him, it might be too early to tell if we should believe it, either.