Modern athletes have far more sway and influence than ever before when it comes to bringing attention to social issues and other causes. In other words, they have a lot of weight to throw around, and in recent years, some of that weight has been thrown in the direction of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Several prominent pro athletes have done their best to raise awareness for the more than 100 universities and colleges that were founded before the civil rights movement specifically for African-Americans.
Naturally, LeBron James has been at the center of it. James used his influence with Nike to help make the apparel company form a partnership with HBCU Florida A&M. This was the first formal partnership between James and a college, so it’s a big deal that it was with an HBCU. The deal was announced right around the 2021 NBA All-Star Game when the league announced a donation of $3 million to HBCUs that have been negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
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Chris Paul has also become a champion for HBCUs, often wearing shirts and hoodies of various HBCUs before and after games. While he played college basketball at Wake Forest, Paul has since started taking online classes at Winston-Salem State, which is less than five miles from Wake Forest. In fact, Paul often spent time on the Winston-Salem State campus during his two years at Wake Forest. Paul is also familiar with HBCUs because his brother and his parents all attended one.
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“It’s about bringing awareness, and also understanding that it’s a new day and age when it comes to athletics and all this stuff,” Paul explains. “No matter what school you go to, if some of the top kids go to these HBCUs, the money will follow. ESPN, all the outlets will follow. Just understanding that is sort of what I’ve been trying to do.”
In October, the NBA announced an expanded partnership with HBCUs that includes professional development, career advancement, and increased support and awareness for HBCU athletics and institutions.
The 2022 NBA All-Star game in Cleveland will feature the NBA HBCU classic with a Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) matchup between the Howard University and Morgan State University men’s basketball teams.
The efforts of players like Paul have already started to pay off. In 2020, five-star recruit Makur Maker turned down offers from Kentucky and UCLA and committed to play college basketball at Howard. While injuries and the pandemic limited his exposure during his only college season, Maker was still the highest-ranked recruit to attend an HBCU, setting an example for others to follow.
There was a time when a great deal of NFL Hall of Fame talent came from HBCUs. Names like Walter Peyton, Shannon Sharpe, Michael Strahan, Eddie George, and Steve McNair are a few that come to mind.
Deion Sanders has helped bring attention to HBCUs by becoming the coach at one. After many years as a high school coach, Sanders became the head coach of the Jackson State Tigers in 2020. After going 4-3 amidst the pandemic in his first season, Sanders led the Tigers to a 10-1 regular season and a trip to the SWAC Championship Game in 2021.
The fact that Sanders is a Hall of Fame player and one of the greatest athletes of all time has brought attention to Jackson State, the SWAC, and HBCUs that wouldn’t be there otherwise. Jackson State has had games televised on national TV that would not have been broadcast to such a large audience if Sanders wasn’t the coach. That is exactly the type of exposure that current and former pro athletes can get for HBCUs if they make the effort.
Sanders most recently pulled off a high-powered move, signing top-ranked CB Travis Hunter, ESPN’s No. 2 overall player in the class of 2022. Hunter announced on Instagram that he will decommit from Florida State and sign with Jackson State.
— Travis Hunter (@TravisHunterJr) December 15, 2021
The only question is how long Sanders will stay with an HBCU before taking a bigger job.
If you look at the halo effect happening across pop culture, retired NBA player JR Smith (36) has been documenting his first college experience at North Carolina A&T on social media. JR is pursuing a Liberal Studies degree and plays on the school’s golf team. JR shared that he managed a 4.0 for his first semester of college.
However, with people like James, Paul, Maker, and Sanders helping to bring HBCU athletics to the forefront, there will surely be others who follow the footsteps of Maker and Sanders in helping to raise the profile of HBCUs.