Historically black colleges have been a rising topic of conversation in pop culture over the last few years, and thankfully, not all of the discussion has been around HBCU campuses dealing with negative elements of higher education. People, and mostly black folks, are talking about HBCUs with a slowly building sense of optimism about what they offer to students and communities around the country.
Recently, the dialog has been driven by Beyoncé and her ode to HBCUs during Coachella. A few years ago, it was HBCU enrollment steadily climbing back to relative respectability in the age of protests against the maltreatment of black students on predominantly white campuses.
Somewhat quietly, the National Football League has jumped into the black pool of genius in support of HBCUs. There are a lot of theories about how this romance between black colleges and the NFL took root, but the outcomes have been fantastic for HBCUs. In three years, the NFL has honored HBCU Hall of Fame alumni at a Super Bowl, named several HBCU graduates to its inaugural cohort of full-time referees, established a sports management training program for HBCU students, and even flipped its PR crisis with Colin Kaepernick into a social justice symposium held at Morehouse College.
And those are just the initiatives over the last three years. Add to that the renewed interest in playing talent from HBCUs, and all would seem to be right between the nation’s most popular sport and its most underappreciated sector of higher education.
But why the sudden love for black colleges?
What Optimists Would Say
Those who appreciate the NFL’s outreach to HBCUs would point to the number of former players and coaches who have the attention of the league office in helping to broker stronger ties between HBCUs and the league. Doug Williams, Willie Lanier, James ‘Shack’ Harris are just a few of the HBCU graduates with clout in the NFL C-suite, and direct interest in connecting the NFL to a once-glorious football brand they helped to build as collegians.
Others would say the NFL is being intentional about improving its subpar diversity record in team and league executive hiring and mobility. Internal reports show that black men serving as head coaches, general managers and other positions of executive oversight are infrequently given a shot at running a team, and compared to white coaches, less likely to get a second chance if their first one doesn’t work out well. Idealists might say that building relationships with black colleges only helps to build racial equity and opportunity that is reflective of its labor force, and like the NASCAR/HBCU partnership, shows corporate partners that the NFL is a brand that can be paired with goods and services targeting multi-ethnic audiences.
Even if a few black players are taking knees and demanding NFL-created platforms to discuss social justice.
And the most optimistic folks would say that the league is just doing what is should have done years ago – reaching out to a college sports brand which helped to build its multi-billion dollar prosperity between the 1970s and 1990s.
What Cynics Would Say
Those who don’t trust the NFL, or any big business for that matter, could argue that there’s no shortage of interest, access or achievement among black players in the NFL; regardless of if the campuses from where players are introduced to the league are historically black or predominantly white. So if the SEC, Big 10 and Big 12 can generate the core of the league’s labor force, why the overtures to schools from the Mid-Eastern Athletic and Southwestern Athletic Conferences, where the average last year of players being drafted is 2007, and which this year selected just two players out of a possible 256 draftees?
Last Three Years for Division I HBCUs with Players Selected in the NFL Draft (Any Round)
Alabama A&M – 1994, 2003, 2011
Alabama State – 2006, 2007, 2017
Alcorn State – 1995, 1996, 1999
Arkansas – Pine Bluff – 2002, 2003, 2013
Grambling State – 2005, 2006, 2017
Jackson State – 1998(2) 2000(4) 2008
Mississippi Valley State – 1986, 1988, 1992
Prairie View A&M – 1973(2), 1974(2), 1980(2)
Southern – 1992, 1996, 2004
Texas Southern – 1997, 2000, 2015
Bethune-Cookman – 1997, 2003, 2005
Delaware State – 1992, 2001, 2015
Florida A&M – 2000, 2011, 2013
Hampton – 2007, 2008, 2011
Howard – 2003, 2005, 2006
Morgan State – 1981, 1982, 2003
Norfolk State – 1990, 1996(2), 2009
North Carolina A&T – 2005, 2017, 2018
North Carolina Central – 1989, 2007, 2016
Savannah State – 1981, 1990
South Carolina State – 2012, 2016(2), 2018
Some could point to that same diversity issue and say that HBCUs are being used as an internal outreach tool to black players, who largely distrust NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the league’s predominantly white ownership group and their commitment to player safety and prosperity.
Some could say that the NFL is losing ratings, and wants to stop the losses by stabilizing viewership among younger African American men and women it can gain through direct outreach to HBCU communities.
And the most extreme of cynics or conspiracy theorists could say the league is doing what it can to shore up a reserve for labor talent, foreseeing like most of us that most great athletes in the next decade will opt to play sports other than football. The argument would be that the NFL player pool is largely composed of black men from poor communities with low educational prospects, and that if this is the best pool from which to draw talent in an era where fewer poor students are able to earn college athletic scholarships, and those who do don’t want to play football… what better place to find poor black men playing football for the chance to earn generationally-transformative wealth?
But that’s just what some folks on both sides of the issue might say.