Deion Sanders proving sacrifice of playing at an HBCU can change college football inequality | Thompson
ATLANTA — When James Houston looked up into the Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium stands during Jackson State's matchup with Alcorn and saw nearly 60,000 fans, he felt something that he never felt during his four seasons at Florida.
He felt the pride of representing an historically black college or university, an institution designed to educate young Black people like him. A school where he's not a minority. A place where he's been embraced by what he called "our people."
"It's something that I feel like a lot of Black men need to see. Because not everybody gets to witness that much love from our people," said Houston, a defensive end who transferred to Jackson State and was named SWAC newcomer of the year.
And it's that experience, that freedom to truly be yourself in an atmosphere where Black people are not just tolerated, but celebrated, that makes HBCUs so uniquely special.
HBCUs were created nearly 200 years ago because segregation was the norm in America and Black people weren't allowed to attend predominantly white institutions, including the schools that make up the Power-5 conferences today.
Prior to 1958, Houston would not have legally been able to attend University of Florida. But he would have been welcomed at a school like Florida A&M.
So as Power-5 schools continue to win recruiting battles with facilities and resources and track records of putting players in the NFL, it's important to keep in mind that there are options out there for Black athletes who want to play for the schools who were there for their people when others were not.
What Deion Sanders has created at Jackson State, a program that can average north of 42,000 fans in a year and snag the nation's No. 1 recruit in Travis Hunter, while maintaining that inclusive HBCU culture is remarkable and unique.
How many other HBCUs could sell out Saturday's Celebration Bowl (11 a.m., ABC) against South Carolina State in the 70,000-plus seat Mercedes-Benz Stadium?
Even though the facilities and amenities at HBCUs might not be at the same level as the ones you'll find at the FBS level, that doesn't mean they'll never get there. And striving to help an HBCU get there is an opportunity worth sacrificing for, said quarterback Shedeur Sanders, who is Deion Sanders' son.
"I think what's special is, the players that we've got here at Jackson State, we all collectively came in and we didn't care about the facilities, we didn't care about any of that," Shedeur Sanders said. "Because honestly that's a big part of the decision, that's a big part of where you go to college and where you go to play at. Just how nice are the facilities and the coaches and all that. So we sacrificed, because our facilities isn't up to par but we're doing our best right now. That's the biggest thing, we all just knew we have to sacrifice right now and later on, everything is going to be great."
That's why Deion Sanders took the job at Jackson State in the first place, he said. Because he's leading a fundamental change in college football and showing recruits that it's OK to sacrifice some of the material advantages in favor of choosing a place where they can truly be comfortable.
"I'm pretty certain that this is why I'm here," Deion Sanders said. "I'm pretty certain that this is why God led me here to Jackson State University, HBCUs and the SWAC. I'm pretty certain that's why. I tried to tell you. Nobody wanted to listen, you thought I was just running the mouth and it was not that. I truly believe ... Everything I've done in my life I've provoked change. Why not now?
"You thought I was just going to be the head coach and nothing was going to change and we were going to continue to do the same foolishness that we've done? We're not going to do that anymore. There's a systemic cancer that we go to get rid of and we've got to stop and we've got to change every darn thing that we could possibly do. This is new kid, a new generation, and a new day. And we've got to be open to change."