With the news that none of the 259 players chosen in last week’s NFL draft were from historically Black colleges and universities, maybe this is the time to propose a radical idea.
Maybe it’s time for a few of the HBCU schools — such as Jackson State and its high-profile coach, Deion Sanders — to consider switching conferences, with the goal of upgrading competition in order to attract a larger number of NFL-quality players.
Told you it was radical. Those schools left behind would rightly feel betrayed. And schools that departed surely would have some guilty feelings about the decision.
But the fact is that college sports is no longer living in the 1960s, when the best Black athletes were not allowed to attend the top sports universities. Many Black athletes instead made their way into professional sports through HBCUs.
Today, Black athletes are excitedly welcomed at all universities, and the best players naturally choose the programs that are more likely to help them achieve their dream of being a professional player. Sanders himself, who helped put Florida State’s football program on the national map, is an obvious example of this.
There are valid external reasons that players from smaller schools didn’t get picked this year, such as the cancellation of 2020 seasons or the delay of games until this spring. Only five players from the Football Championship Subdivision, which is where 18 HBCU schools play, got drafted. That is a sign that the pandemic prevented NFL scouts from being as thorough as they usually are.
Sanders said after the draft that he saw a number of athletes that played against Jackson State this year that were worthy of a draft choice. He said HBCU schools and coaches need to work together — conveniently forgetting that college coaches are notorious for trashing their recruiting competitors.
Some players from these schools are indeed good enough to make it to the proverbial next level: The Washington Post reported that 29 players from HBCU schools were active on an NFL roster at the start of the 2020 season. It specifically noted all-pro Indianapolis linebacker Darius Leonard, picked in 2018 from South Carolina State; and Houston offensive lineman Tytus Howard of Alabama State, a first-round pick in 2019.
Still, there’s no denying that while the HBCUs used to have an exclusive pipeline to top talent, they no longer do. So it’s up to them to do something about it.
It’s worth noting that HBCU football programs typically fare poorly in the FCS playoffs. The only HBCU school that has won a playoff game in the past 20 years is Tennessee State, which happens to be one of only two HBCU FCS schools that is not a member of either the Southwestern Athletic Conference or the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.
Geography is the biggest hurdle to an HBCU school that might consider switching conferences. If a SWAC school was looking at it, the closest FCS league is the Southland Conference, whose members are from Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas. But it may not provide the higher competition that would help recruit players.
Another option might be the Ohio Valley Conference, where Tennessee State is the only HBCU member. But that would increase travel costs, since members are from Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri and Illinois.
There is always the possibility of moving up to the Football Bowl Subdivision. That would be big news, worthy of Coach Prime’s efforts to put Jackson State on the national map.
It’s tempting to think about, but unlikely to happen. Which is too bad, because the HBCUs do have amazing sports pedigrees. It seems wrong to just watch that fade away.