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What would happen if they collectively decided to go to black schools? But over the course of the five months between his visit to FAMU and his decision to enroll at Oregon, Thibodeaux—who gushed about the historically black university on social media—galvanized alumni and boosted national awareness of the institution.
It was a moment of hope for HBCUs, and it should have been a moment of fear for the predominantly white institutions whose collective multibillion-dollar revenues have been built largely on the exertions of uncompensated black athletes. Almost all of these schools are majority white—in fact, black men make up only 2.
Yet black men make up 55 percent of the football players in those conferences, and 56 percent of basketball players.
Black athletes have attracted money and attention to the predominantly white universities that showcase them. Meanwhile, black colleges are struggling. Why should this matter to anyone beyond the administrators and alumni of the HBCUs themselves? Because black colleges play an important role in the creation and propagation of a black professional class.
Despite constituting only 3 percent of four-year colleges in the country, HBCUs have produced 80 percent of the black judges, 50 percent of the black lawyers, 50 percent of the black doctors, 40 percent of the black engineers, 40 percent of the black members of Congress, and 13 percent of the black CEOs in America today.
Read: Why America needs its HBCUs In a country where the racial wealth gap remains enormous—the median white household has nearly 10 times the wealth of the median black household, and the rate of white homeownership is about 70 percent higher than that of black homeownership—institutions that nurture a black middle class are crucial.
And when these institutions are healthy, they bring economic development to the black neighborhoods that surround them.
Moreover, some black students feel safer, both physically and emotionally, on an HBCU campus—all the more so as racial tensions have risen in recent years. Navigating a predominantly white campus as a black student can feel isolating, even for athletes.
Davon Dillard is a basketball player who transferred to Shaw University after Oklahoma State dismissed him for disciplinary reasons. We have the same kind of struggles. We can relate. Top black athletes used to go to black colleges.
In fact, until the Brown v. Board of Education decision, in , Jim Crow and segregation made black colleges pretty much the only destination for black athletes. Even for the majority of players, whose prospects of a professional sports career are remote, the lure of playing in championships—in giant stadiums with luxurious training facilities, in front of millions of television viewers—is strong.
But what if a group of elite athletes collectively made the choice to attend HBCUs? Black athletes overall have never had as much power and influence as they do now. While NCAA rules prevent them from making money off their own labor at the college level, they are essential to the massive amount of revenue generated by college football and basketball.
This gives them leverage, if only they could be moved to use it. After that, football programs in the Deep South realized that if they were going to stay competitive, they would have to recruit black players.
In other areas of the country, colleges had already begun to recruit African Americans: The Michigan State team that fought Notre Dame to a 10—10 draw in the fall of —a contest that many still consider to be the best college football game of all time—had 20 black players.
In the era before big television contracts, HBCUs more or less had a monopoly on black athletes, because there was little money to be made from them. But when college sports became big business, the major sports schools proved to be relentless in recruiting players away from HBCUs.
William C. Rhoden, the author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, an account of how black athletes have historically commanded big audiences but had little true power, places some of the blame for the exodus on the HBCUs themselves, which operated as if they would have a monopoly on black talent forever.
A 57 percent decrease in state funding over a period of several years had made it difficult for Grambling to maintain its football facilities. This has forced HBCUs to become proficient at identifying and developing diamonds in the rough—prospects who were passed over or jettisoned by bigger programs.
What does this athletic facility look like? What does this practice facility look like?
The system must be disrupted to redirect the stream of wealth. He saw how the black colleges featured in the classic were generating millions for Mobile, a city that is He is convinced that steering high-school athletes of color toward HBCUs can help invigorate African American communities and generate black success.
In the early s, five high-school basketball players—two each from Texas and Detroit, and one from Chicago—got to know one another playing in all-star games and basketball camps. They enrolled together at the University of Michigan, and partway through their first season they were all starting for the team.
Becoming famous as the Fab Five, they reached the championship game of the March Madness tournament in and , and four of them went on to play in the NBA. Three or four of them could spark a national conversation—and, in basketball, could generate a championship run that attracted fans and money.
Now imagine five or 10 or 20—or a few dozen. That could quickly propel a few black schools into the athletic empyrean, and change the place of HBCUs in American culture.
Many of the top high-school players, especially in basketball, know one another from Amateur Athletic Union AAU tournaments and all-star games, as the Fab Five did. If a few of them got together at HBCUs, they could redraw the landscape of college basketball.
It would boost HBCU revenues and endowments; stimulate the economy of the black communities in which many of these schools are embedded; amplify the power of black coaches, who are often excluded from prominent positions at predominantly white institutions; and bring the benefits of black labor back to black people.
Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters theatlantic. Jemele Hill is a staff writer for The Atlantic, where she covers sports, race, politics, and culture.