Everything we know about Deion Sanders and how he’s shaking up college football
Here’s everything we know about Deion Sanders and how he’s shaking up college football starting with HBCU Jackson State.
Trisha Easto, Mississippi Clarion Ledger
From Jack Johnson to Muhammad Ali to Colin Kaepernick, tales of race and sport in America are not simply ones where we can find entertainment and athletic triumphs (or failures). They are also, more importantly, narratives where struggles against inequality, marginalization, blatant racial contradictions and dehumanization are sometimes highlighted.
One of those dramas is playing out right now down in Jackson, Mississippi.
College football’s most fascinating current coaching storyline doesn’t revolve around Alabama’s Nick Saban, Georgia’s national champion Kirby Smart, or also-rans like Louisville’s Scott Satterfield. No, the most interesting coach in America is legendary sportsman Deion “Prime Time” Sanders and his evolving odyssey at Mississippi HBCU Jackson State University, the alma mater of NFL Hall of Famer Walter “Sweetness” Payton and other luminaries.
Be clear, what “Coach Prime” is doing at Jackson State is nothing short of revolutionary and people know it! Why else would 60 Minutes recently feature him? Why else would ESPN’s “College Gameday” visit undefeated JSU this weekend ahead of its showdown with Southern University?
Coach Prime is ruffling feathers.
And he’s doing it, in of all places, Mississippi, a state with quite a bit of blood on its hands. Mississippi took Emmett Till. It took Medgar Evers. It took Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney. It tried to take the souls of Freedom Riders. Mississippi still so neglects Black people that Coach Prime recently had to bathe in a local hotel’s swimming pool because the state paid insufficient attention to predominantly Black Jackson’s befouled water while affluent outlying white areas thrived.
It is in Mississippi that Coach Prime flipped Travis Hunter, one of the nation’s top recruits last year from Deion’s alma mater, Florida State, to Jackson State. Other recruits and transfers have followed suit or put JSU on their short lists. Quite a feat for a coach at an HBCU, which Sanders opined are chronically “underserved and overlooked” by mainstream America, much like Black people in general. Forbes agrees.
But with Sanders on the scene, JSU and, by association, other HBCU programs, are making a little noise for a moment. But will it last?
A little noise for HBCUs
60 Minutes commented that the “cinematic version of the story” would have Coach Prime remaining at Jackson State, growing the school into a powerhouse, and eventually competing with and beating the large Power Five schools. It’s important to note that while all the Power Five schools are white controlled, the majority of their high-revenue sports (football and basketball) athletes are Black. Hmmm. We don’t have space here to explore all the reasons why that exploitative dynamic exists.
In our Spike Lee movie version of the multiverse, Deion stays at JSU, top Black athletes return to HBCUs across the country, and the yoke of predominantly white institution sports domination is broken. HBCUs win all the national championships. Reigning Heisman trophy winner Bryce Young isn’t at Alabama. He’s throwing touchdowns for Alabama State or Alabama A&M. The top football and basketball players in Georgia never consider Georgia or Georgia Tech. They’re suiting up for Morehouse, Clark and Savannah State.
North Carolina and Duke aren’t hoops powerhouses anymore because the Black stars that have shored them up now attend Shaw, North Carolina A&T and Winston Salem State. In Kentucky, much heralded basketball recruit D.J. Wagner doesn’t boil his choices down to Kentucky or Louisville if he wants to play ball in the Bluegrass State like his grandfather. He takes his talents to Kentucky State or Simmons College.
And, oh yes, all that college sports money flows in a different direction.
How the story ends
Alas, that’s not how this story will end. Deion Sanders is probably not a lifer HBCU coach like Grambling’s Eddie Robinson, Winston-Salem State’s Clarence “Big House” Gaines, Florida A&M’s Jake Gaither, or Jackson State’s W.C. Gorden. More than likely, Prime Time isn’t long for JSU. That reality came up when 60 Minutes’ Bill Owens asked, “What happens when a Power Five school says, ‘You give us a number and we’ll make it work’?” Deion responded, “I’m gon’ have to entertain it. Straight up. I’d be a fool not to.”
And that will be that.
That’s understandable when one remembers as 60 Minutes did, “Sanders’ salary of $500k is less than 5% of what, one state over, Alabama pays its coach, Nick Saban.” JSU’s entire football budget is $4 million. Saban’s current individual annual salary? Well over $11 million! Sanders leaving Jackson State doesn’t mean he’s a sellout or uncommitted. It just highlights the way the real-world of American racial stratification and economic power extend into every nook and cranny of the country, including higher education and sports.
But for right now, Coach Prime is stalking the sidelines of JSU, uplifting the city of Jackson, HBCUs and many others. Let’s just enjoy it while he’s there and see how this all plays out.
Oh, by the way, did I tell you he won’t remember it, but Deion Sanders once saved my life in an Atlanta mall?! That’s a true story . . . but one for another time. Keep killin’em, Prime! After all these years, we’re still cheering for you!
Dr. Ricky L. Jones is professor and chair of the Pan-African Studies department at the University of Louisville. He’s a graduate of HBCU Morehouse College. His column appears bi-weekly in the Courier-Journal. Visit him at rickyljones.com.
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