Josh Christopher goes up for a layup at a game in New York City.Michael Reaves / Getty

Joshua Christopher, a five-star basketball recruit from California, recently told me that he’s planning to go to Howard University this weekend for an official recruiting visit. This is news. Not just because Howard, a historically black school, hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 1992. But also because perhaps it signals a shift in the mentality of young black athletes.

“As I grow older, I just want to know where Josh Christopher comes from, knowing my background,” said Christopher, who comes from a family of top-tier college players. “I’m more than just a basketball player. To be able to know my history other than the Christopher bloodline, that’s real important. I want to know the people that paved the way for kids like myself.”

Christopher’s interest in Howard also can be credited to his deep admiration of Thurgood Marshall, the legendary civil-rights attorney who attended law school there and went on to become the first African-American Supreme Court justice. In fact, it was Marshall who once said, “None of us got where we are solely by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. We got here because somebody—a parent, a teacher, an Ivy League crony, or a few nuns—bent down and helped us pick up our boots.” Marshall’s selflessness registers with Christopher. The sense of kinship he feels with the former justice is what led him to the uncommon decision to consider Howard.

Young black athletes are becoming more aware of their power and influence within college sports at a moment when the inequities that athletes face within that multibillion-dollar industry are being challenged. On Monday, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed the Fair Pay to Play Act, which would allow college athletes to be compensated for the usage of their likeness and name. Under current NCAA rules, athletes are prohibited from being paid for any endorsements. Lawmakers from other states, including Florida and New York, have proposed bills similar to California’s.

In the meantime, colleges’ recruitment of the top football and basketball players has become a huge spectator sport in its own right. That Christopher ranks ranks 12th on ESPN’s list of the top 100 prospects in the 2020 class, and has received offers from Michigan, Arizona State, Missouri, and UCLA but chose to visit Howard speaks volumes. He’s not the only highly recruited prospect planning to do so. Makur Maker, a 6-foot-11 center who is 10th on ESPN’s list, is expected to make a visit to Howard during the school’s homecoming weekend, later this month.

Even if neither of them decides to attend Howard in the end, the fact that they have shown serious interest in the school could encourage other high-school players to do the same. It could be only a matter of time before a top-tier player commits.

“I think I have pretty good influence on kids right now, especially basketball players,” Christopher said. “My main thing is to make sure that whoever is watching me is getting the right stuff. I know there are a lot of kids that have told me they look up to me, that are inspired by me.” He adds, “Not all kids can go to the Kentuckys and the Dukes and all the other high-major programs that are on ESPN every night.”

Last month, I wrote an essay urging the most promising African American prep stars—including athletes like Christopher and Maker—to eschew big-name schools and instead attend historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs. Other than helping to revitalize institutions that once were the nerve center of black America, athletes who sign at HBCUs could see some personal financial opportunities.

Most African Americans support paying college players, and some commentators have already proposed that HBCUs going forward abandon the NCAA and create their own pay-for-play league. If California’s new law represents a looming change in the financial structure of college sports, HBCUs are in a position to further advance the conversation about equity for athletes.

As it stands, HBCUs have struggled to compete in this modern era of college sports. Most don’t have the facilities or generate the same media attention as the major college programs. But audience and attention will follow the talent. Laron Christopher, Josh’s father, isn’t worried that his son will miss out on anything if he decides to commit to Howard.

“I’m not concerned at all,” Laron Christopher told me. “This is a perfect opportunity for eyes to be on the program and for people to see what it needs. This will bring awareness.”  

As the primary talent base for college football and basketball, black athletes have helped pump millions into large, well-funded, predominantly white colleges—and have been exploited in the process. If more top prospects such as Christopher and Maker begin to seriously consider or attend HBCUs, the hope is that the money these athletes attract with their ability could be funneled back to the schools that, as Marshall might put it, help other African Americans pick up their boots.

Decisions by top prospects like Christopher and Maker to check out Howard may be the start of a trend or just a momentary blip, but it’s clear young black athletes are beginning to understand something crucial: that major college sports can’t exist without them. And if they continue to think that way, maybe that is what will finally change college sports.

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