On June 2, as Black Lives Matter protesters swarmed America’s streets demanding an end to the racist vestiges of America’s troubled past, a teenager from a San Diego suburb posted eight words on Twitter that would soon ignite a less visible, though perhaps just as powerful, movement.
“Going to an HBCU wouldn’t be too bad,” he wrote.
The person behind the Twitter post, which quickly went viral, is one of the most sought-after college basketball recruits of the Class of 2023: 16-year-old Mikey Williams. If he were to attend a historically Black college or university, Williams would become one of the highest-rated athletes to do so post-integration.
Williams’s post came as a surprise to college sports recruiters and fans who pore over social media for clues about which schools an athlete might be favoring. To land a recruit like Williams would all but guarantee a team’s success and ensure prime TV placement for their games.
Williams, who averages 30 points per game for San Ysidro High School, had already amassed offers from some of the country’s top basketball programs, including Kansas and U.C.L.A. In the six days following his tweet, he received another 14 — all from H.B.C.U.s. Black colleges in the past have considered the effort and resources to recruit elite talent a waste because of the long odds of being selected over a predominantly white institution. But in January of this year, LeVelle Moton, the head basketball coach at historically Black North Carolina Central University, offered a scholarship to LeBron James Jr., a high school freshman known as Bronny who is the son of the N.B.A. superstar LeBron James.
As more top Black athletes express interest in an H.B.C.U. movement, they are signaling that Power 5 institutions may no longer hold the same allure.
“All it takes is one person to change history,” the N.B.A. star Carmelo Anthony wrote on Instagram, referencing Williams’s comments. Days after Williams’s post, Nate Tabor, a top basketball player from Queens withdrew his commitment from St. John’s to sign with Norfolk State, a small Black college.
On July 3, Makur Maker, a 6-foot-11 power forward, said he was forgoing offers from U.C.L.A. and Kentucky to attend Howard University, becoming the highest-ranked player in more than a decade to choose an H.B.C.U. “I want to inspire the youth to be able to lead in whichever way they can. I’m doing it by taking this step,” Maker said in a phone interview. “Hopefully in one or two years from now we’ll see H.B.C.U.s as power schools.”
Hours after Maker’s announcement, Daniel Ingram, a star quarterback from Ohio who had signed a letter of intent in February to attend the University of Cincinnati, said in a Twitter post that he would de-commit and instead attend the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, another H.B.C.U.
The following week, Tavyion Land, a standout defensive back for Liberty University, announced he would transfer to Norfolk State so he could be “surrounded by people with similar backgrounds and cultural experiences.” Several other athletes and faculty members also left Liberty recently, criticizing the university’s handling of situations involving race.
“We’ve reached a boiling point. People are truly upset and they’re going to push this further than it’s ever been pushed before,” said Jasmine Gurley, chairperson for HBCU Jump, an organization that among other things helps connect top-tier recruits to H.B.C.U. alumni, including those who made it to the N.B.A. and N.F.L.
“We want to redirect people to communities and institutions that have historically supported us,” Gurley said.
As they reflect on the trauma that has afflicted their community for centuries, Black athletes are increasingly recognizing the value of their star power.
“WE ARE THE REASON THAT THESE SCHOOLS HAVE SUCH BIG NAMES AND SUCH GOOD HISTORY..But in the end what do we get out of it??” Williams wrote on Instagram the day after his viral Twitter message. “Any way I can help or make a change in the Black community best believe I am going to do that.”
The Flutie Effect
Revenue from college sports surpassed $14 billion in 2017, according to the United States Department of Education. Most of that figure was generated by men’s football and basketball programs at Power 5 schools.
The 65 schools which constitute that group present a striking imbalance: 75 percent of athletic directors and 80 percent of head basketball and football coaches, are white men. Yet the players on their basketball and football teams are nearly 50 percent Black, according to NCAA data.
A single star football player can increase revenue to a school’s athletic department by more than $500,000, according to a 2020 study by Ohio State University.
In what is known as the Flutie Effect, a successful college sports team can uplift not only the athletic department, but the entire school (the phenomenon is named for Doug Flutie, a quarterback who was credited for prompting applications to Boston College after throwing a winning touchdown in a 1984 game against Miami).
When Norfolk State upset Missouri at the 2012 N.C.A.A. men’s tournament, becoming the fifth 15-seed ever to beat a No. 2 seed, revenue from the men’s basketball team spiked by more than $220,000 — a 24 percent increase over the previous year. Enrollment jumped 4 percent. Assuming those new students paid full tuition and fees, they would have collectively brought an additional $2 million to $4 million to the university that year.
“Athletics is like the front porch of a university,” said Robert Jones, the head coach of Norfolk’s men’s basketball. “If athletics does well, the university does well as a whole.”
Attending H.B.C.U.s used to be the norm for top-notch Black athletes who, before college sports gradually desegregated through the 1960s, had little other choice. Over time, Black students have shifted toward predominantly white institutions: The percentage of Black college students attending H.B.C.U.s fell from 17 percent in 1990 to 9 percent in 2016, according to a study by the Race and Equity Center at the University of Southern California.
The report attributes the decline to poorly resourced admissions departments and a negative perception of Black colleges among African-American students — a view spawned in part by H.B.C.U. finance and accreditation woes and exacerbated by intermittent cuts in federal funding.
Star athletes moving en masse to return the spotlight to historically Black universities could provide a needed economic boost for the schools and provide an environment that predominantly white institutions cannot. A 2015 Gallup study found that Black students who graduated from H.B.C.U.s were twice as likely as Black graduates from non-H.B.C.U.s to have experienced supportive professors and mentors, and are more likely to strongly agree that their university prepared them well for life outside of college.
“H.B.C.U.s are the one place where you’re not a minority,” said Gurley, who swam for North Carolina A&T, an H.B.C.U. “I encourage kids to go where you’re loved. Go where you’re going to be taken care of. Go where you’re more than just the revenue dollars you’re going to bring in.”
Black students at predominantly white schools often experience racial microaggressions and stereotypes, said Keneshia Grant, an assistant professor of political science at Howard University. Particularly after the 2016 election, Grant said many freshmen, as well as students who transferred from predominantly white institutions, expressed concerns over safety.
“Students are asking themselves: ‘Where can I go and not have to worry about falling asleep in the library and having the police called on me? Where can I not have to wonder if people are questioning my presence because of some affirmative action policy?’” she said.
“I for sure would have gotten drafted earlier had I gone to a P.W.I.”
Of the 450 players on N.B.A. rosters, just two attended H.B.C.U.s. The N.F.L. boasts a similar ratio, with just 32 H.B.C.U. alumni among the league’s 1,800 players.
The slow rate of matriculation from Black colleges to the pros owes in part to a disparity in exposure. Big-name institutions offer not only first-class facilities and well-connected coaching staffs, but also the opportunity to play on TV in front of millions of fans and, importantly, scouts.
“I for sure would have gotten drafted earlier had I gone to a P.W.I.,” said Antoine Bethea, referring to predominately white institutions. Bethea, a defensive back, has played 14 seasons in the N.F.L. after being drafted out of Howard in 2006 by the Indianapolis Colts.
Bethea said he was discovered by chance when N.F.L. scouts visited Howard to evaluate a teammate. He said they first took note when he happened to make a play that flashed on the teammate’s videotape.
“When I was at the N.F.L. training camps I saw guys from Ohio State and Oklahoma who were no better than some of my Howard teammates,” he said. “Sometimes it felt like we got the short end of the stick because of where we played.”
Athletes who commit to underfunded H.B.C.U.s should be prepared to make sacrifices, he said. At Howard, for example, his team’s weight room was located in the basement of a dorm. Unable to afford plane tickets, they often took 12-hour bus rides to attend away games.
Despite struggles with scouting and facilities, Bethea insisted that attending an H.B.C.U. “was the best decision of my life.”
The N.B.A. and N.F.L. have begun to offer initiatives to help close the exposure gap. In 2017, the N.B.A. players union launched a camp to scout the country’s top 50 players from H.B.C.U.s and the N.F.L. was set to launch a similar initiative in March — scouting the top 100 players at a combine — but the event was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The N.F.L. recently designated seven scouts to find and evaluate H.B.C.U. talent and expanded their video exchange program — where colleges share game footage with N.F.L. scouts — to include H.B.C.U. conferences.
“Exposure is everything. So this is us filling that gap,” said Troy Vincent, the N.F.L.’s executive vice president of football operations, and its highest-ranking African-American official. “If the talent is there, we’ll find you.”
That may prove more difficult than usual this year, as the Mid-Eastern and Southwest athletic conferences announced they would postpone their football seasons indefinitely because of the virus outbreak. The MEAC and SWAC are primarily comprised by H.B.C.U. teams.
Social media could help fill the exposure void now and once sports return. Williams and Maker each have Instagram followings of 2.3 million and 90,000, respectively, and with recent moves toward revising N.C.A.A. rules, which have long prohibited athletes from profiting off their celebrity, players could potentially leverage their movement to consider Black colleges to generate endorsements.
“We’re at a critical point in our country as far as policy, empowerment and how we’re going to deal with social injustice,” said Kali Jones, the head football coach at Withrow High School, who encouraged Ingram to withdraw his commitment from Cincinnati and choose an H.B.C.U.
Jones said he has always pushed his players to consider H.B.C.U.s, but excitement over the idea swelled after Ingram announced his decision. He anticipates many of his athletes will follow.
“This is a beautiful thing. This is a beautiful moment,” he said. “We are living in a paradigm shift.”