By Jabari M. Evans
For most college football coaches, the move from a mid-major conference to a Power Five conference would be met with widespread praise.
Not so for Deion Sanders.
When the Pro Football Hall of Famer announced he would be leaving Jackson State University, where he has coached the football team since 2020, to become head coach at the University of Colorado Boulder, many ardent fans and supporters reacted with dismay and disbelief – particularly his fans and supporters from the Black community.
Jackson State is one of 107 historically Black colleges and universities, or HBCUs. Some HBCU alumni and supporters saw Sanders as betraying the cause of rejuvenating HBCU sports and returning them to a time when football greats such as Jerry Rice, Walter Payton and Steve McNair attended HBCUs as a stepping stone to professional stardom.
Debates about whether he was a “sellout,” a “traitor” and a “hypocrite” quickly surfaced on social media and in major media outlets.
As a scholar who specializes in Black culture, I was struck by the ways in which this Sanders story was tied to a concept I write about called clout-chasing. It’s a process in which cultural capital is harnessed on social media to attract media attention, likes, followers and fame. You’ll often see young people looking to launch careers as content creators described as clout chasers.
Institutions, however, can also chase clout. And I saw Jackson State doing just that when it hired Deion Sanders.
Black Schools Matter
Over the past decade – after the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, the spread of national anthem protests and the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor – HBCUs have received more attention and investment as places for the revitalization and advancement of the Black community.
In 2019, Black billionaire Robert Smith promised to pay the student loan debt of that year’s entire graduating class at Morehouse College. In the summer of 2021, the Department of Education awarded more than US$500 million in grants to HBCUs. Finally, President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan and other forms of pandemic relief have provided nearly $3.7 billion in relief funding to HBCUs.
HBCU athletic departments have also received increased visibility. Though HBCU programs have always been overshadowed by schools in conferences like the Big Ten and SEC – what are known as Power Five conferences – HBCU sports have started to receive more national television coverage. Top recruits have started taking official visits to HBCUs as they weigh which school to commit to.
In the summer of 2020, after star basketball recruit Makur Maker spurned offers from the University of Kentucky and UCLA to attend Howard University, The New York Times proclaimed that a movement of top Black athletes attending HBCUs was underway.
A star with staying power
Like many, I grew up watching Deion Sanders play professional football and baseball. I idolized him. He wore gold chains, danced his way to the end zone, wore expensive suits and – most importantly – he was a celebrity who fully embraced Black popular culture. He was also one of the first athletes to understand that he was a brand off the field.
His appeal transcended race, gender and class, putting him in a rarefied group that includes Michael Jordan, Serena Williams and LeBron James.
Even after his playing career ended in 2005, Sanders’ star never dimmed. He had his own reality show produced by Oprah, has served as a regular analyst on the NFL Network, and has acted as a pitchman for companies like Nike, Under Armour, American Airlines and Aflac.
Sanders has also seamlessly adapted to the social media era, regularly posting videos on Instagram to an audience of 3 million followers.
Simply put, he is still one of the most famous people in the world. Like his younger counterparts with huge online followings – digital natives like Odell Beckham Jr. and LaMelo Ball – Sanders possesses an immense amount of digital clout.
Coach Prime joins the HBCU ranks
I was hardly surprised when Sanders made a quick splash in Jackson.
Fueled by the talents of his son, quarterback Shedeur Sanders, and former top high school recruit Travis Hunter, Jackson State quickly attracted national attention as a HBCU powerhouse.
After a COVID-shortened 2020 season, Sanders, whose players affectionately call him Coach Prime, led the school to two consecutive appearances at the Celebration Bowl, an annual game in which the champions of the two prominent HBCU conferences face off.
While boosting Jackson State’s profile, Sanders also presented himself as someone scholars like Brandon J. Manning have termed a “race man,” or a loyal member of the Black race who dedicates their life to directly contributing to the betterment of Black people.
Under the pretense of looking out for the future of HBCU athletics, Sanders said he would be better positioned than anybody to protect the legacy of HBCUs. Black student athletes, he argued, should choose to go to Jackson State because their association with him would not only give them clout, but also the kind of attention and encouragement that they could expect to receive from a Power Five program.
Yet it was always going to be close to impossible to keep Sanders at Jackson State if he consistently won.
Many suspected that Sanders eventually wanted to compete against top-tier programs like the University of Alabama and the University of Georgia. In fact, during an October 2022 interview on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” Sanders talked openly about listening to offers from bigger schools.
Despite these realities, many Black folk wanted to believe Sanders would be in it for the long haul. Now they’re dismayed, believing the momentum Sanders gave to HBCU athletics could come to a screeching halt.
God changes his mind
But unlike some prominent Black cultural critics who derided Sanders’ decision, I don’t think he’s a sellout.
Jackson State was arguably chasing some clout of its own when it hired Deion in the first place. At the time, Sanders was a coach with no experience beyond the high school level. He did, however, have plenty of experience performing – and winning – in the brightest of spotlights. Jackson State probably knew that taking a flier on an untested celebrity coach would be worth it: It would attract attention and, with it, money.
On the flip side, I also believe Sanders knew that he could build his coaching clout further at Jackson State by appealing to what sociologist Saida Grundy calls the Black respectability politics and Christian values of HBCU campuses. You could see this when he said that God told him “to even the playing field” for those who attend Black schools.
It was a symbiotic arrangement all along: Sanders leveraged his clout to grow the program that embraced him, but he was also hoping to attract the attention of an even bigger program.
I believe Sanders ultimately did more good than harm in terms of raising the profile of HBCU athletics. Furthermore, one person was never going to catapult HBCUs to the prominence of Power Five programs.
Sanders is part of a bigger group of former professional players and coaches leading HBCU programs. Former NFL head coach Hue Jackson now heads the football program at Grambling State University; NFL Pro Bowler Eddie George currently mans the sidelines at Tennessee State University; and Olympic gold medalist Cynthia Cooper-Dyke coaches the women’s basketball team at Texas Southern University.
If Sanders was a sellout, it was only in one sense: Jackson State football games routinely sold out during his tenure, shattering attendance records for the program.
Jabari M. Evans is Assistant Professor of Race and Media at the University of South Carolina.
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Dennis C Rathsam says
Prime time…is ready for prime time! He is a role model for many athletes, black or white. Neon Deion payed his dues….Lets get behind him, and pray for his success.
Exactly! I’m all in, because as an HBCU alum, I know first hand the issues and ills that plague our institutions, as well as our communities. What “Coach Prime” (CP) has done throughout his lifetime and career thus far, has been exceptional, as well as miraculous to say the least.
Other than the bitter cold in Boulder, CO, CP, staff, and team will be those forces in which no others want to reckon. “Let’s go Buffaloes!”
I attended what is now considered the top 4th HBCU in the country and find it extremely disheartening that 45-years later there are those who considered Deion Sanders as some type of savior for HBCU’s or their athletic programs. Don’t get me wrong, athletics are important and the avenue in which this poor white female was able to create a path to higher education – but most importantly, one in which the history and traditions of HBCU’s were learned. Not being able to join certain campus organizations or sororities never bothered me as the traditions were such a positive force for the black students and far more important than the touting of a nationally ranked football program. How sad to have the author of this article include the likes of George Floyd, the destructive nature of parts of the BLM movement and to fail to mention how the past White House signed the FUTURE Act insuring $255 million dollars in annual funding for HBCU’s. Reflecting many years later, how deflating that skin color is still a matter of division, that folks continue to unfairly look for individuals to save them rather than building from a platform of strengths and that the circle of a few athletes are revered over the development of intellectual prowess, hard work and personal determination. Back to the point of the article – all one has to do is listen to the words of Deion Sanders to understand why he left Jackson State and to project a goal of someday returning home to Florida State University to lead his former team. It’s a process and one we can all learn from.
Despite these realities, many Black folk wanted to believe Sanders would be in it for the long haul.
No, we did not. We expected that he would finish the season before announcing he was leaving. Shedeur throwing away 3 passes … after being tackled …. the last one was the final play in OT. They weren’t in the game. They showed up. They were CU. We want Coach to fulfill his dreams. It’s not that he left … I’d how he left.
Let me guess, you didn’t see the perfect pass touched/dropped in the end zone? Had pass been caught, which it should have, JSU would have prevailed victoriously. Then again, you and other naysayers and haters would continue to launch idle complaints about DS’s moved upward and onward.
No, but you missed the point… which is fine. He’s gone. We’ve moved on. We wish him well.
The Geode says
WE??? He should have moved on when they stole his stuff after THE FIRST GAME or maybe after they broke into his truck or maybe when he had to donate half of his paltry salary to help that crap school or maybe when they cheated him out of his ticket sale money or perhaps when after creating exposure to HBCUs that NO OTHER coach has ever done only to be called a “sellout” by a bunch of ingrates that lived lives of entitlement and quick to express anger and taunts towards any black man that tries to better himself. Yeah. We are only good when we follow the status quo and do what the ignorant masses do then you suck the life out of the people trying to escape a place so vile they call it “JaAfrica”. As I said earlier, who are these “WE” you speak of?
Alonzo Burns says
What ever happen to the quote:”It takes a village to raise up or a chain is only strong as its links”HBCU is only strong as foundation of many not one individual like Deion Sanders.
Question: would HBCU Community gotten this kind of attention if Coach Prime would not been in this Space?
Derek Wilson, Ph.D. says
This is the most disingenuous article on what a sellout is. Like Bobby Wright told us years ago the issue of race declines every night for those who sleep with whites. For you to say that JSU was chasing clout when was the last time you upheld HBCUs? Why don’t HBCUs who are FCS programs get the clout to play in FCS playoffs? They had the best record in all of FCS and no invite. Why do white institutions get all the benefits from Black athletes, students and faculty but no one talks about or supports HBCUs. Whites don’t value the many of Black folk just a select few of them to expand their brand and pockets. You need to write how Colorado is clout chasing with such a sorry football program. Are they going to better the lives of Black folk in numbers in the state, the university and society. Jabari Evans you look comfortable writing this madness contributing to white supremacy. White supremacy also effects the mindset of individuals like yourself. As Francis Cress Welsing and Neely Fuller told us “if you don’t understand white supremacy then all that you think you know will only confuse you.” You are confused. Stop giving in to scientific and educational colonialism. Talk about upholding HBCUs and placing the best and brightest at those institutions and you stop clout chasing at and for PWIs. Barbara Sizemore said it best,”Black folk still don’t get it.”
The Geode says
lol. Seems like “logic” wasn’t one of the requisites to obtain a “Ph.D.” at Keiser or the University of Phoenix…
Abraham Yarbrough jr. says
Coach Deion Sanders , you peoples should praying 🙏 that others man’s do what coach Deion Sanders for giving the love for these Youngs man’s wow when you goings to stop this talking bad about all the coaches for helping teachers this Youngs to be the best in football in life proud 👏 of Deion Sanders wish I had the opportunity to coach this colleges students I have coach baseball in softball in basketball leagues but not on a high level all about if you play this games all your life why , the system s don’t start giving jobs to older man s that willing to help Youngs help Youngs peoples turn there life around I am willing to coach in where to help call me coach Deion Sanders I am available to do anything to change life thank you 👏 of you for turn the HBCU around God bless 🙌 😉 👍