In the summer of 2018 Kayvon Thibodeaux, who was then ranked as the top high-school football player in America, visited Florida A&M University, in Tallahassee. When a player of Thibodeaux’s caliber visits a perennial football power—say, Alabama—it’s called Wednesday. But when he visits a historically black college or university (HBCU) like Florida A&M, it threatens to crack the foundation on which the moneymaking edifice of college sports rests.
“I really just wanted to learn the history of FAMU,” Thibodeaux, a defensive end who received a scholarship offer from the school after his freshman year in high school, told me. “And I wanted to show there were more opportunities out there than just big-time Division I schools.”
Ultimately, and perhaps inevitably, Thibodeaux announced that he was going to one of the top football programs in the country, the University of Oregon. “Nobody wants to eat McDonald’s when you can get filet mignon” is how Thibodeaux put it. But over the course of the five months between his visit to FAMU and his decision to enroll at Oregon, Thibodeaux—who gushed about the historically black university on social media—galvanized alumni and boosted national awareness of the institution. It was a moment of hope for HBCUs, and it should have been a moment of fear for the predominantly white institutions whose collective multibillion-dollar revenues have been built largely on the exertions of (uncompensated) black athletes.
The NCAA reported $1.1 billion in revenue for its 2017 fiscal year. Most of that money comes from the Division I men’s-basketball tournament. In 2016, the NCAA extended its television agreement with CBS Sports and Turner Broadcasting through 2032—an $8.8 billion deal. About 30 Division I schools each bring in at least $100 million in athletic revenue every year. Almost all of these schools are majority white—in fact, black men make up only 2.4 percent of the total undergraduate population of the 65 schools in the so-called Power Five athletic conferences. Yet black men make up 55 percent of the football players in those conferences, and 56 percent of basketball players.
Black athletes have attracted money and attention to the predominantly white universities that showcase them. Meanwhile, black colleges are struggling. Alabama’s athletic department generated $174 million in the 2016–17 school year, whereas the HBCU that generated the most money from athletics that year, Prairie View A&M, brought in less than $18 million. Beyond sports, the average HBCU endowment is only one-eighth that of the average predominantly white school; taken together, all of the HBCU endowments combined make up less than a tenth of Harvard’s.
Why should this matter to anyone beyond the administrators and alumni of the HBCUs themselves? Because black colleges play an important role in the creation and propagation of a black professional class. Despite constituting only 3 percent of four-year colleges in the country, HBCUs have produced 80 percent of the black judges, 50 percent of the black lawyers, 50 percent of the black doctors, 40 percent of the black engineers, 40 percent of the black members of Congress, and 13 percent of the black CEOs in America today. (They have also produced this election cycle’s only black female candidate for the U.S. presidency: Kamala Harris is a 1986 graduate of Howard University.)
In a country where the racial wealth gap remains enormous—the median white household has nearly 10 times the wealth of the median black household, and the rate of white homeownership is about 70 percent higher than that of black homeownership—institutions that nurture a black middle class are crucial. And when these institutions are healthy, they bring economic development to the black neighborhoods that surround them.
Moreover, some black students feel safer, both physically and emotionally, on an HBCU campus—all the more so as racial tensions have risen in recent years. Navigating a predominantly white campus as a black student can feel isolating, even for athletes. Davon Dillard is a basketball player who transferred to Shaw University after Oklahoma State dismissed him for disciplinary reasons. “Going to a school where most of the people are the same color as you, it’s almost like you can let your guard down a little bit,” he told me. “You don’t have to pretend to be somebody else. You don’t have to dress this way, or do things this way. It’s like, ‘I know you. We have the same kind of struggles. We can relate.’ It’s almost like you’re back at home in your neighborhood.” Perhaps partly for this reason, black students’ graduation rates at HBCUs are notably higher than black students’ at other colleges when controlling for factors such as income and high-school success.
Top black athletes used to go to black colleges. In fact, until the Brown v. Board of Education decision, in 1954, Jim Crow and segregation made black colleges pretty much the only destination for black athletes. Even into the 1970s and ’80s, some HBCU alums were achieving Hall of Fame–level greatness in basketball (Willis Reed, Grambling State ’64; Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, Winston-Salem State ’67) and football (Walter Payton, Jackson State ’75; Jerry Rice, Mississippi Valley State ’84). But the reason black athletes today don’t choose FAMU over Oregon, or Hampton over Duke, is obvious: Their chances of making it to the pros as a high draft pick, and of winning lucrative endorsement deals, are enhanced by going to the predominantly white schools that sit atop the college-sports world. Even for the majority of players, whose prospects of a professional sports career are remote, the lure of playing in championships—in giant stadiums with luxurious training facilities, in front of millions of television viewers—is strong. Clemson is only 6 percent black, but it’s won two of the past three national football championships and has a $55 million football complex. North Carolina A&T, a few hours north, is 78 percent black. And while the Aggies have won the HBCU national championship in three of the past four seasons, the program can’t offer what Clemson can in terms of resources and exposure; A&T’s entire endowment is worth barely as much as Clemson’s football complex. Presented with a choice between Clemson and North Carolina A&T, most high-school athletes would choose Clemson—whose starting lineup, not incidentally, is majority black.
But what if a group of elite athletes collectively made the choice to attend HBCUs?
Black athletes overall have never had as much power and influence as they do now. While NCAA rules prevent them from making money off their own labor at the college level, they are essential to the massive amount of revenue generated by college football and basketball. This gives them leverage, if only they could be moved to use it.
“I have a hard time saying this,” LeVelle Moton, the head basketball coach at North Carolina Central, an HBCU that has won three consecutive Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference titles, told me. “Black people, I love us, but everyone else understands that we’re the culture, except for us.” Audiences and money “are going to come wherever the product is. We don’t understand that, and we continue to give ourselves away for free.”
Some people point to September 12, 1970, as the day HBCUs lost their corner on the nation’s best black football talent. That’s the day an all-white Alabama team got their asses handed to them by the University of Southern California’s heralded African American triumvirate of quarterback Jimmy Jones and running backs Sam “Bam” Cunningham and Clarence Davis. After that, football programs in the Deep South realized that if they were going to stay competitive, they would have to recruit black players. (In other areas of the country, colleges had already begun to recruit African Americans: The Michigan State team that fought Notre Dame to a 10–10 draw in the fall of 1966—a contest that many still consider to be the best college football game of all time—had 20 black players.)
In the era before big television contracts, HBCUs more or less had a monopoly on black athletes, because there was little money to be made from them. But when college sports became big business, the major sports schools proved to be relentless in recruiting players away from HBCUs. William C. Rhoden, the author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, an account of how black athletes have historically commanded big audiences but had little true power, places some of the blame for the exodus on the HBCUs themselves, which operated as if they would have a monopoly on black talent forever. “The HBCUs probably felt that racism was so deeply entrenched that white people would never go after black kids en masse,” Rhoden told me recently. “Had HBCUs known then what we all know now, maybe they could have figured out a way to say, ‘How can we, with the window we’ve got left, make a great product, so when white people finally get religion, we’ll still be in a good position?’ ”
The flight of black athletes to majority-white colleges has been devastating to HBCUs. Consider Grambling State, in Louisiana, home of arguably the most storied football program in HBCU history. A 57 percent decrease in state funding over a period of several years had made it difficult for Grambling to maintain its football facilities. In 2013, things got so bad that players—fed up with the school’s dilapidated facilities and the long bus trips to road games, as well as the firing of the coach—staged a boycott that led to them forfeiting a game. Though the walkout prompted Grambling to spend $30,000 on a new weight room, and it has since raised nearly $2 million for upgrades to its Eddie Robinson Stadium, the ordeal was embarrassing for the university.
Today, most blue-chip recruits in football or basketball don’t even consider attending black colleges. This has forced HBCUs to become proficient at identifying and developing diamonds in the rough—prospects who were passed over or jettisoned by bigger programs. “These are guys who were thought to be not big enough or not fast enough,” Buddy Pough, the head football coach at South Carolina State, told me. “Our niche has been that we take the guy that nobody seems to want.”
To attract the best football and basketball players in the nation, HBCUs have to spend money to improve their facilities—but to generate the athletic revenue necessary to improve their facilities, the colleges need more of the best players.
“We really have to get monetary support in upgrading facilities,” LeVelle Moton told me. “These kids want to know: What does this weight room look like? What does this athletic facility look like? What does this practice facility look like? It’s tough to compete.”
Kayvon Thibodeaux said much the same. “In this day and age, it’s about money,” he told me. “Unless HBCUs upgrade drastically, I don’t know if things will change.”
But what if young black athletes were to force that change?
“NCAA athletics generate billions in profit annually, and Black athletes are the prized workforce,” reads the mission statement of an organization called the Power Moves Initiative. “However, African Americans are not stakeholders at predominantly white universities and corporations that profit from our talent. The system must be disrupted to redirect the stream of wealth.”
Robert Buck, who attended two black colleges (Alabama State and FAMU), got the idea to start the Power Moves Initiative after organizing the 5th Quarter Classic, a now-defunct annual game between HBCUs held in Mobile, Alabama. He saw how the black colleges featured in the classic were generating millions for Mobile, a city that is 50.4 percent black. It bothered Buck that other black athletes were generating such money for predominantly white schools, and that other black communities weren’t receiving the same benefits.
“It’s almost like we were being used,” Buck told me.
He is convinced that steering high-school athletes of color toward HBCUs can help invigorate African American communities and generate black success. “I think we have an inferiority complex,” he said. “We, as black people, don’t feel like something is as large or as good if a white person isn’t in charge of it … We’re the value. That value doesn’t diminish because you’re doing it with your own.”
There’s a model for how young black athletes could leverage their talent and financial power. In the early 1990s, five high-school basketball players—two each from Texas and Detroit, and one from Chicago—got to know one another playing in all-star games and basketball camps. They enrolled together at the University of Michigan, and partway through their first season they were all starting for the team. Becoming famous as the Fab Five, they reached the championship game of the March Madness tournament in 1992 and 1993, and four of them went on to play in the NBA. What if instead of enrolling at Michigan they’d gone to Howard, taking the Bison, rather than the Wolverines, to the Final Four?
A single high-profile recruit enrolling at an HBCU would get people’s attention. (Thibodeaux got people’s attention just by considering enrolling.) Three or four of them could spark a national conversation—and, in basketball, could generate a championship run that attracted fans and money. Now imagine five or 10 or 20—or a few dozen. That could quickly propel a few black schools into the athletic empyrean, and change the place of HBCUs in American culture.
It wouldn’t be that hard. Many of the top high-school players, especially in basketball, know one another from Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) tournaments and all-star games, as the Fab Five did. If a few of them got together at HBCUs, they could redraw the landscape of college basketball.
“If we created a Fab Five at Alabama State,” Buck told me, “that would create a lot of hype around our HBCUs, showing the value that we already possess and redirecting a whole lot of dollars to black colleges.”
Bringing elite athletic talent back to black colleges would have potent downstream effects. It would boost HBCU revenues and endowments; stimulate the economy of the black communities in which many of these schools are embedded; amplify the power of black coaches, who are often excluded from prominent positions at predominantly white institutions; and bring the benefits of black labor back to black people. In the general culture, prominent figures such as Beyoncé, LeBron James, and the recently slain rapper Nipsey Hussle have argued that African Americans should be using their talents not just to enrich themselves but to help strengthen and empower black communities. “Gentrify your own hood before these people do it,” Jay-Z rapped at the concert that reopened Webster Hall in New York City in April. “Claim eminent domain and have your people move in.”
If promising black student athletes chose to attend HBCUs in greater numbers, they would, at a minimum, bring some welcome attention and money to beleaguered black colleges, which invested in black people when there was no athletic profit to reap. More revolutionarily, perhaps they could disrupt the reign of an “amateur” sports system that uses the labor of black folks to make white folks rich.
This article appears in the October 2019 print edition with the headline “Why Black Athletes Should Leave White Colleges.”