Deion Sanders’ decision to leave Jackson State University, a historically Black university in Mississippi, to take over as head football coach at the predominantly white University of Colorado in Boulder has been the talk of the sports world.
Upon joining Jackson State (JSU) in 2020, Sanders, 55, a Pro Football Hall of Famer and two-time Super Bowl winner, essentially became a champion of HBCU football. He promoted the virtues of the schools, lured top recruits away from predominantly white institutions, sparked a surge of donations and sponsorships to the underfunded JSU, increased national exposure for HBCUs and put up his own money to renovate the school’s Walter Payton Center.
He declared that God led him to Jackson State to uplift HBCUs. With all of his aforementioned efforts, fans and HBCU advocates are upset that he is leaving the university after three seasons for a $5 million annual payday from Colorado.
“He sold a dream and then walked out on the dream. People have the right to be critical of that,” ESPN’s Bomani Jones told CNN. Sports fans on social media shared similar sentiments, with one person tweeting, “Deion was preaching elevating HBCU programs & looks like he was just using JSU as a launching pad for his coaching career, which is fine, but don’t go around acting like it was for altruistic reasons.”
Another added: “This guy literally made himself the face of HBCU sports, acted as its lead ambassador, shamed those who didn’t want to include him (be they questioned his motives) … only for him to flip so soon.”
The debate about Sanders leaving JSU has been centered on whether he should be considered a “sellout” for leaving an HBCU football program that he made successful for a struggling program at a better funded, predominantly white institute. Experts say the answer isn’t so simple.
Sanders has a 27-5 coaching record at Jackson State, including going 12-0 this year and winning two consecutive Southwestern Athletic Conference titles. The Colorado Buffaloes haven’t had a winning season since 2006 and haven’t won a bowl game since 2004.
Sanders will owe Jackson State around $300,000 in a buyout for the 2020 contract, according to USA Today. And Colorado reportedly offered Sanders a starting salary of more than $5 million per year, plus incentives.
Although Sanders’ departure is a major loss for JSU, some have said that his joining a school in one of college football’s Power Five conferences marks the upward mobility that Black coaches have long fought for. Rob Parker, co-host of the Fox Sports radio show “The Odd Couple With Chris Broussard & Rob Parker,” said that while he understands the criticism, he believes Sanders is simply “evolving as a coach.”
“This is the circumstance of college football. This scenario has happened a million times. This is not a Deion Sanders thing,” Parker told NBC News. “Because he was able to move mountains, and make changes, and gave people a sense of pride for HBCUs, now they feel like he owes them for the rest of his life. And I don’t think that’s fair.”
HBCU Sports senior editor Kendrick Marshall, who was among the first to announce Colorado’s offer to Sanders last month, acknowledged that Sanders never said he’d stay at Jackson State for long. Sanders made clear in an October interview with CBS’ “60 Minutes” that he would “entertain” an offer from a Power Five school. This, Marshall said, doesn’t mean Sanders’ HBCU rhetoric was disingenuous.
“I do think he cared about the well-being of Jackson State football players. I do believe he cared about the well-being of the university as a whole. I do think, to some degree, that he really, truly cared about how Black colleges were perceived in the mainstream,” Marshall said, noting that he believes Sanders accomplished all he said he wanted to do at JSU, from winning games and donations to media exposure. And, in doing so, he made himself more appealing to other schools seeking head coaches. “It was a win-win for both parties,” Marshall added.
Some critics of Sanders’ departure have said the outrage isn’t so much about the NFL star going to a predominantly white institute, but that he is doing so after cementing himself as a staunch supporter of HBCUs. An air of racial solidarity and loyalty has underscored Sanders’ time at JSU. His decision to move on and break his four-year contract with JSU has even been described as “abandonment” by online critics. Sanders has also said he’s taking his son, Shedeur, JSU’s quarterback, to Colorado with him.
In an opinion piece, Deadspin sports writer Carron J. Phillips said the move only proves that Sanders never really cared about HBCUs at all, especially since his rhetoric has centered around a bold mission: to “change lives. Change the perspective of HBCU football,” he said in the “60 Minutes” interview.
J. Kenyatta Cavil, a professor specializing in HBCU sports at Texas Southern University, said focusing solely on the financial incentives and upward mobility of Sanders’ new job ignores the “social identity” of sports. As much as college football is a business and money-driver, there is a cultural significance to the programs that manifests itself in everything from lifelong loyalty to teams to students’ college choices.
“People are fighting two competing frameworks,” Cavil, co-editor of “The Athletic Experience at Historically Black Colleges and Universities — Past, Present, and Persistence,” said of Black sports fans. “Even though they understand the capitalistic truisms of this society, people will also tell you they wanted Sanders to believe in something that would keep him at JSU despite the money.”
Sanders also credited God for his latest career move when he told the team of his departure. He addressed claims that his decision was motivated solely by money, telling the players, “It’s not about a bag, but it is about an opportunity.” This posture may be helpful for Sanders as Colorado’s athletic director, Rick George, admitted Sunday that the university doesn’t have the money to pay Sanders — “but I know we’ll have it so I’m not worried about that piece,” he added, according to Sports Illustrated.
Experts like Cavil and Marshall agree that it’s unclear how JSU will fare both on the field and in terms of donations and media attention without Sanders’ advocacy and star power.
“Two major pieces of the championship team are going to be gone next year,” Marshall said, referring to Shedeur and Travis Hunter, a former five-star recruit and JSU cornerback who is rumored to have plans of following the father and son to Colorado. “As far as what happens on the football field, they won’t be as good as they were the past couple of years with Deion Sanders not around. I think the buzz around the program will change, especially if they don’t hire a coach that has a similar stature as Deion Sanders.”