Coach Prime is not the HBCU savior: On Deion Sanders and the money-making machine of college sports

The outrage over Deion Sanders leaving his Jackson State football coaching job for Colorado is misplaced

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published December 9, 2022 8:59AM (EST)

Head coach Deion Sanders of the Jackson State Tigers looks on before the game against the Southern University Jaguars in the SWAC Championship at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium on December 03, 2022 in Jackson, Mississippi. (Justin Ford/Getty Images)
Head coach Deion Sanders of the Jackson State Tigers looks on before the game against the Southern University Jaguars in the SWAC Championship at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium on December 03, 2022 in Jackson, Mississippi. (Justin Ford/Getty Images)

Deion Sanders,­ AKA "Prime Time" — college football and NFL Hall of Famer, former shutdown cornerback, erstwhile rapper, and currently a force injecting revolutionary energy into HBCU NCAA football — shocked the world when he announced that he would be leaving Jackson State University, the public, historically Black university in Jackson, Mississippi, where he has served as head football coach for three seasons, for the University of Colorado earlier this week. 

After the news broke, Sanders tweeted, "Change makes people get uncomfortable. Change is inevitable in every age & stage of life but it somehow someway brings Love but Hate, Joy but Sorrow & Life & Death. There's a time & season for every activity under the sun the bible declares. CHANGE is INEVITABLE. #CoachPrime" 

I know what you might be thinking: Who cares about a college coach switching jobs? Coaches move schools all the time, right? Especially for a better offer. His new deal, according to The Denver Post, includes $5.5 million for his first season alone. Jackson State was paying Sanders $300,000 per year. Colorado will be more than quadrupling his annual pay, on top of other incentives. This is America, right? And we know the rule is to be paid. To save your space, time, energy and — most importantly — your talents for the highest bidder. I honestly don't think anyone has a problem admitting that. However, Deion's situation is different. 

Now certain Republican politicians and other deniers of racism will never admit that America was built on the backs of Black people who slaved all day — literally — and weren't legally allowed to share space with our white counterparts, even after emancipation. That meant we couldn't live in the same neighborhoods, shop at white stores or eat at white restaurants. We couldn't even drink out of the same water fountains, let alone be educated at white colleges. As a result, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) were established. And you don't have to be a history expert to know that colleges for Black people, like Jackson where Sanders coached, have been historically underfunded. 

In 2022, Forbes did a deep dive into the history of America cheating its Black colleges, even though these intuitions were responsible for educating "80% of Black judges, 50% of Black lawyers and doctors and 25% of Black science, technology, engineering and math graduates." Here's how poorly North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University (NC A&T), the country's largest HBCU, is funded compared to predominately white public institutions: 

"The single worst instance of annual underfunding for any school was in 2020, when the North Carolina legislature appropriated A&T $95 million, $8,200 less per student than the $16,400 per student it gave to NC State. Instructional expenses per student at NC State: $15,681, versus $7,631 for the HBCU. Even Student Services, which includes admissions and the registrar's office, are better funded at the predominantly white school. At NC State it amounts to $1,342 per Wolfpacker versus $726 per Aggie." 

So imagine if you are one of the top Black athletes in America with dreams of playing professional sports. Do you enroll at the mega-white college with the pro-athlete-sized stadium, located on the campus with the pro-athlete-equipped fitness center, and the necessary contracts needed to put you on television every week just like a pro, or do you commit to the historically underfunded Black school that produces a small fraction of professional athletes compared to big white schools? Deion Sanders was on the road to changing the predictable outcome of that question. 

Jackson State was lit before Coach Prime was blessed with the coaching job.

I want to be extremely clear that Jackson State was lit before Coach Prime was blessed with the coaching job. They were known for their magnetic energy, beautiful history and having some of the most passionate students in America. However, Prime's use of social media is so good that my wife who doesn't even watch football knew that he lost two toes, because like millions of other people, she tunes into his Instagram like a TV show. Add that to his larger-than-life NFL persona, crazy dance moves, Tony Roberts meets Diddy pre- and post-game speeches and coaching ability gloriously amplified the magic experience that was Jackson State. He coached the school to two consecutive Celebration Bowl appearances and the only undefeated season in the school's history. For the first time since colleges were desegregated, Black fans across the board were raving about HBCU sports and Black players were considering, getting excited about, and actually attending HBCUs — including Prime's own son Shedeur Sanders, the star quarterback at Jackson State. 

Since the announcement, Prime has hinted at Shedeur leaving. Also, star wide receiver Robert Lockhart, Jordan Hall, Twan Wilson, and other top recruits have already de-committed from Jackson State, which is the worst news resulting from the departure. Losing top recruits means diminished hope for the potential to make tens of millions of dollars or more in revenue from ticket and memorabilia sales, donations from excited alumni and TV deals that could go toward Jackson hiring more top academics, building a bigger and better stadium, expanding the campus, introducing new disciplines, and overall elevating the school, not to mention closing some of those gaps found in the Forbes study. 

HBCU advocates, Jackson fans and spectators following Coach Prime's viral motivational speeches have been ripping him apart on Instagram and Twitter all week. The basic narrative is that he used Jackson to propel himself to a godly status and then abandoned it as soon as the white school came knocking. 

"In coaching, you either get elevated or get terminated. Ain't no other way," Sanders told his team.

Joining the white school is elevating? I don't think he meant the people. I think he was referring to the same money and resources that have been leading Black athletes away from HBCUs historically. Jackson did bless Sanders with his first head coaching gig. But we must acknowledge that he was already one of the most celebrated athletes in sports history and a successful commentator on "NFL Today." Sanders also has a history of preaching, motivating and sharing the word of God everywhere he goes — that energy he became known for over the last two years at Jackson is him all of the time. Dude has been like a running, jumping and rapping one-man mega-church­­, even back in the 1990s when he visited my high school. 

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I attended Paul Laurence Dunbar, a citywide school surrounded by five housing projects. And while the school has been known for producing celebrated world-class athletes like Reginald Lewis, Tyrone "Muggsy" Bogues, Sam Cassell and Tavon Austin, professionals never visited our school in an effort to motivate us. No doctors, no lawyers, no journalists, no politicians, no reverends. Nobody except Prime. 

"Line up, straighten up, clean it up," Mr. Brown, our sharpest history teacher — and a heavy HBCU advocate — said to us as we entered the auditorium, "Chin up, doctors, keep those heads up." 

Even though Dunbar's student population was predominantly female — not on purpose, it just worked out that way — the assembly was for boys. The mid-'90s was one of the most dangerous segments of the crack era. Baltimore had an extremely high murder rate, and many of the boys who weren't going to make it in sports like Sanders needed some kind of hope, some other inspiration, even just an example of the kind of success that could exist outside our neighborhoods. Enter Prime. 

Prime can have a big heart with good intentions, while simultaneously breaking the hearts of others. And that's what happened.

It is important for people to know that Deion wasn't at the end of his career when he decided to visit us. He was actually at the top — an icon, a mega star, a guy with his own Nike sneaker. Prime was in his prime. He didn't need to go speak to a bunch of poor kids, but he did. The power of his stardom kind of drowned out the bouncing around on stage, the "you can do it" rants, and his message in general, but he came. He came to inspire us when no one else did. Over 20 years have passed, and the impact of that visit still holds meaning for so many of us. It is not strange for one of my friends from high school to say, "Yo, remember that time Prime came?" 

Coach Prime had no connection to Dunbar. I'm sure he visited schools like mine all over the country, which is an honorable gesture. That does not mean he is not capable of hurting people. Both things can be true. Prime can have a big heart with good intentions, while simultaneously breaking the hearts of others. And that's what happened. Adults who get to pick and choose where they decide to work, live, and play are using social media to attack Coach Prime for doing the same. So let's say this all together: Coach Prime was great for Jackson State, but he is not a savior. He is not and will never be. He is a person. After two magnificent years as head coach at Jackson, poverty is still poverty, earning a livable wage is still a luxury, Ted Cruz is still employed, and Black people are still dying at alarming rates. The Savior Industrial Complex (I think I just made that up) is hurting us as much as Sanders hurt the fans of Jackson, if not more.

It bothers me that we are not using this moment to properly capitalize on the positive energy that surrounded Jackson State over the last two years. HBCU graduate (Texas Southern University) and former NFL player turned "GMA" host Michael Strahan acknowledged the star power high-profile coaches like Sanders bring to these institutions in an interview here at Salon last year. "These kids want to see someone that they've admired or someone that they've seen on TV, who's had success," he said.

We should be using this moment to encourage more successful black coaches, former professional athletes with an interest in coaching, and other powerful Black people in sports, to flood the HBCUs and continue to carry the torch so star coaches don't have to leave in search of more money, media and resources. And while we're at it, Strahan gave this advice in that interview, too: "[I]f you have an opportunity to support an HBCU, do your best to support them." Donating to Jackson State and other HBCUs is extremely easy. That will go a lot further than bashing Prime or refusing to critique the white power structure that is collegiate sports. 

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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