This is an opinion column.
“I mean, Jackson State paid a guy a million last year that was a really good Division I player to come to their school.”
That’s what Nick Saban said. That’s what he said, as most of us know now, during an event in Birmingham last Wednesday before a room jammed with the city’s business leaders (read: folks with the deepest pockets). It’s what he said while discussing this new age of name, image, and likeness in college sports—manna allowing athletes to finally be paid.
It’s what he said about a historically Black academic institution whose football team is coached by Deion Sanders. Coached by a Pro Football Hall of Famer. By a man who’s molded the FCS team into a manifestation of his nicknames: Neon and Prime Time.
Into a team that attracts fans and attention like Sanders did in his time. Into a team that has ignited new interest in Black-college football—that has launched a revolutionary rebirth. A revolution that will be televised.
Sanders has created a team that just might be attractive to an elite athlete. Particularly to an elite African American athlete. To a five-star athlete Like Travis Hunter, the “guy” Saban was covertly speaking of.
I mean, why else would he go there?
That’s not what Saban said. But it’s what we heard. Heard as clearly as if the Alabama coach had screamed it from atop Bryant-Denny.
Why would a “really good Division I player” go to an FCS school? To an HBCU?!
That’s what we heard. And it more than stung.
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Unanswered questions about Nick Saban, Jimbo Fisher fued
Because we’ve too long heard about our institutions. About Black institutions. About institutions often diminished when juxtaposed with those created by others.
We’ve too long heard it about our Black businesses. (We’ve even, sadly parroted it among ourselves. If you’re not familiar with the phrase, the white man’s ice is colder, Google it; you’ll know what I mean.”)
We’ve too long heard it about our educational institutions. About our colleges and universities, which were created to educate us when no one else would, when it was still illegal throughout the South for us to even learn to read.
Created as we were being corralled into public schools that were intentionally separate, inherently unequal, and unconstitutional—so declared by the U.S. Supreme Court 72 years ago, almost to the day Saban spoke.
I mean, why else would he go there?
Saban’s remarks about Jackson State were perplexing and perturbing.
And just flat-out wrong. Huffs and puffs about why Hunter chose Jackson State were mostly trafficked among unfounded social media sites, and widely refuted.
Saban, in those remarks, added that Jackson State “bragged” publicly about what may have lured Hunter to the institution. Didn’t happen.
Saban’s pontifications about Jackson State were slightly overshadowed by the subsequent, juicy blowup with Texas A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher. In the remarks, Saban claimed the Aggies “bought every player on the team” after A&M’s 2022 recruiting class was ranked No. 1 by 247 Sports.
Saban’s class was No. 2.
The Tide coach later apologized, saying he shouldn’t have singled out any institution, but not before Aggie coach Jimbo Fisher and Sanders snapped back.
At a hastily called press conference the following day, Fisher termed Saban a “narcissist” and labeled his claims “despicable”.
Initially, Sanders was relatively light-hearted. He tweeted, “I don’t even make a million!” not long after Hunter, a cornerback from Suwanee, Georgia tweeted: “I got a mil? But my mom still stay in a 3 bedroom house with five kids.”
I don’t even make a million! Lolololol ????????????? https://t.co/wagxbCJoWs— COACH PRIME (@DeionSanders) May 19, 2022 ” target=“_blank”>
I got A mil??But my mom still stay in a 3 bed room house with five kids ?
— Travis Hunter (@TravisHunterJr) May 19, 2022
Later, in an appearance on the I AM ATHLETE TONIGHT podcast, Sanders allowed that Saban was aiming at folks in the room, not him and Fisher. The two coaches were “pawns”, he said. “He was really going at his people to up the ante so that he could outdo Coach Fisher.”
Sanders also confessed that he was “stung” by Saban’s words.
“So, being an HBCU football coach and winning don’t qualify me?” he said, according to my colleague Mike Rodak. “I’ve coached in the NFL, the Under Armour All-American game for, I think, 14 years straight. Some of the best players in the nation, so that don’t qualify me?
“I’ve coached high school football for a plethora of years,” he added, “and won four straight state championships and that don’t qualify me?
“I’m disqualified from a guy that looks like me, talks like me, walks like me and kind of want to be like me? That’s a problem for me.”
And for us.
Here’s the perplexing part: For a guy—I’m gonna be real straight, for a 70-year-old white man who has coached and mentored and prepared a few generations of young Black men to excel and achieve their dreams, Saban’s words seemed out of character.
For a guy who, in the fall of 2020, walked with his young men, stride-in-stride with his young men through campus—at the University of Alabama, the University of Alabama—in defiance of the absurd shut up a play edict espoused by so many sports fans, by so many Tide fans even.
In the wake of the murder of George Floyd.
Together, they and hundreds of UA students and student-athletes marched and gathered at Foster Auditorium, at the place where a racist former governor once stood and told two young Black people, Shut up, you’re not welcome here. Now. Tomorrow. Or forever.
In such light, Saban’s words are perhaps more obtuse than overtly offensive.
While undoubtedly intentional—Saban does not utter a word without a distinct message attached—they were not intended to inflict disparagement.
And yet, they evoke voices too often still whispered into the ears of young Black athletes: You can’t get there (to the pros, to the multi-million-dollar paycheck) if you go there (an HBCU).
Still whispered when not too very long ago—in this writer’s lifetime—HBCUs were the only option for young Black men striving to get there.
Even still whispered into the ears of many of our best and brightest academic minds: You can’t get there (to a path leading to the corporate c-suite) if you go there (an HBCU).
So, being us, being surrounded by and nurtured by and elevated by us doesn’t qualify us?
I mean, yes, it does.
More columns by Roy S. Johnson
Buffalo killings: We don’t want to replace y’all
Colorado arrest, jailing of Jerry Jeudy dilutes domestic violence’s abhorrent depths
Any reasonable, empathetic Republicans out there? Time to stand up
After my challenge, Alabama’s reasonable republicans stood up
Squash NFL naysayers, Colin Kaepernick, play in the USFL
Remembering Birmingham Holocaust survivor as Alabama remembers
Roy S. Johnson is a 2021 Pulitzer Prize finalist for commentary and winner of 2021 Edward R. Morrow prize for podcasts: “Unjustifiable”, co-hosted with John Archibald. His column appears in The Birmingham News and AL.com, as well as the Huntsville Times, the Mobile Press-Register. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow him at twitter.com/roysj, or on Instagram @roysj.
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