Depending on where you stand on the fault line, you’ve either been sending text messages explaining how Deion Sanders’ decision to leave Jackson State makes him a sellout, or you’ve been arguing that his autonomy as a Black man allows him the right to decide what’s best for him and his family.
But you’ve been saying something. We all have.
To understand the controversy surrounding the biggest sports decision since LeBron James took his talents to Miami, you have to understand the Black community’s proprietorship of Black athletes.
Before Deion Sanders was Jackson State’s head coach, even before he was the most feared cornerback in the National Football League, and way before he was Florida State’s most recognized face on campus, he belonged to us.
He was flamboyantly ours. He was all hip-hop with his gold necklaces and luxurious Jheri curl. He was all leather jackets and dark shades. He was “Must be the Money.” He was Prime Time. He was Muhammad Ali in his talk and Jack Johnson in his extravagance.
And because he reflected the tenets of Blackness — from his upbringing to his speech to his unwavering Christianity — we embraced him the way we always embrace Black athletes. They are ours because they are extraordinary for their talents, but they are also ours because they are proof that despite all of the neighborhood minefields and systemic pitfalls, they made it out.
And because we possess them, they owe us for our devotion, for our commitment to their dream, for our undying support. Black sports figures are not this hollow, distant shadow of athleticism; they are family.
Which is why everyone has an opinion on what essentially amounts to a business decision for Sanders. Shortly after leading HBCU Jackson State to an undefeated season for the first time in the school’s history, Sanders announced that he would be leaving his Black football home for whiter pastures.
Sanders was quickly announced as the head coach of the University of Colorado football team, a powerhouse conference team in desperate need of a fresh start, and it didn’t take long for commenters to start tearing down his decision. He was called a sellout and a disappointment and a liar. This was personal.
Many believe that Sanders sold the dream of transforming not only a small HBCU but of shifting the conversation toward Black athletes taking their talents to Black schools to play for Black coaches. And it’s true that Sanders did make it sound like he was all in.
Black folks didn’t make Sanders out to be a messiah come to save HBCUs from the big, bad powerhouse conferences; he did that all by himself.
“It’s a match made in heaven,” Sanders said on his podcast, “21st and Prime,” after learning that he’d gotten the job at Jackson State, HBCU Gameday reports. “This is a God move. When they pulled up today, I said, you know it’s gotta be God for me to leave all this.”
But Alabama State’s Eddie Robinson Jr. — who is not related to Grambling State University coach and Hall of Famer Eddie Robinson (more on him later) — called out Sanders after Alabama State lost to Jackson State 26-12, arguing that Sanders was not a true Southwestern Athletic Conference coach.
“He ain’t SWAC. I’m SWAC, he ain’t SWAC,” Robinson said after the game. “He’s in the conference, doing a great job, can’t knock that, got a great team, his son [Shedeur Sanders] should be up for the Heisman Trophy, I love Shedeur, great player, I love what he’s doing for the conference. … But you’re not going to come here and disrespect me and my team and my school and then want a bro hug. Shake my hand and get the hell off.”
And Sanders’ response — and this might be the Blackest moment of his tenure at Jackson State — asked rhetorically, “If I’m not SWAC, who is SWAC?” and then wore a “Who is SWAC?” sweatshirt to practice and danced along with his players as they chanted “Who is SWAC, baby?”
This is what Black people were attached to. This is the difference between an HBCU and a PWI, a predominantly white institution. This is what it means to be fully embraced for all your Blackness. Kids didn’t want to just play for Sanders, they would run through a brick wall for him because he knows not only how to motivate them; he gets exactly who they are. This wasn’t a viral clip of a head coach celebrating with a goofy dance with his team; this was Sanders just being Sanders, and as such, he was a unicorn — a Black man being fully Black in a Black space.
“Sanders coming to Jackson, Mississippi, to coach felt like a crowning achievement for Black people. It felt like a man who once was so dominant that he could shut down one half of the football field by himself was coming to a place that was made just for us.”
Being a Black person in a white space is hard.
I’m not talking about being a racial representative. I’m talking about being a Black person at a wedding, for example, when the DJ starts playing the “Cupid Shuffle” and the crowd of white onlookers starts waiting for you to show them the steps. I’m talking about being a Black person with curly hair that has to be on guard knowing that some wayward, uncouth hand is going to reach to feel it. I’m talking about trying to explain what W.A.P. means to the uninitiated.
Which is why Sanders coming to Jackson, Mississippi, to coach felt like a crowning achievement for Black people. It felt like a man who once was so dominant that he could shut down one half of the football field by himself was coming to a place that was made just for us. It felt like it didn’t need to be explained. Deion Sanders was going to single-handedly legitimize the entire league by his presence alone.
In just three years, he took a little-known Black college and put it into the conversation with all of the big boys. For once, an HBCU was competing for the top 100 high school players. Not only was Jackson State competing, but kids who had declared to play for a big-name school were taking that declaration back and asking to come to Jackson State. It was everything that was right in the HBCU world: a loud-talking, flashy Hall of Famer who could bridge the gap between the old and the new world, who understood the importance of the Xs and Os and the cultural significance of XXXTENTACION. It was like he was a unicorn, a flashy mythical creature whose maturity had finally caught up with his braggadocio — and just like a whisper in the wind, he was gone.
ESPN’s Bomani Jones laid it all out in an interview with CNN in which he explained that those hurt by Sanders’ decision and those who see it merely as a coaching move are both right.
“I wouldn’t have come in in the first place and said that God sent me here to fix HBCUs and God decided that in the middle of it, you were supposed to leave,” Jones said before describing Sanders’ likely financial calculations. “The thing I’ve said is maybe God wants 10% of 5 mil and not 10% of 375 [hundred thousand dollars]. If God can do math, I can understand why it is. He sold a dream and then walked out on the dream. People have the right to be critical of that.”
But isn’t that what all head coaches do? In fact, isn’t that what anyone who wants a job would do? I can’t go to an interview for a cashier position at CVS and tell them, “I just want to work here until I find something better, and then I’m out.” I have to actually make the interviewer believe that I want this job.
Sanders was not shy in noting that if a Power Five school came calling and the money was right, that he’d have to consider it.
“What happens when a Power Five school says, ‘Give us a number. We’ll make it work?’” asked host Bill Owens during an interview with “60 Minutes.”
“I’m going to have to entertain it,” replied Sanders. “Yes, I’m going to have to entertain it. Straight up. I would be a fool not to.”
What this is really about is Eddie Robinson. For 56 years, he was not just the face of Grambling football, he was the face of HBCU football. He was easily one of the greatest coaches of all time, and more importantly, a maker of men. He could’ve left Grambling to coach anywhere, but he believed that his work was with his people. And this is who all HBCU coaches will be measured against.
This is not Sanders.
As Jones explained, Sanders didn’t want to be an assistant coach; he wanted to be a head coach — and a small school in Mississippi took him up on that offer, and he shined. He got players to believe in what he was selling, and in turn, they had the best couple of seasons that they’ve had in a long time.
Not only that, but Sanders gave up half of his $300,000 a year salary to help finish the school’s football operations facility. He got the team a synthetic turf practice field, a national appearance on “ESPN College GameDay” and “60 Minutes” on CBS, and new Under Armour uniforms. He even went out and cut the grass on the field, himself, because he was tired of waiting for it to be done.
But no matter what he’s done in the short time he was there, there are still people who believe that it was not enough — those same people who’ve not donated a dollar to supporting an HBCU in their state or left their cushy employment to work at an HBCU for less money.
It takes a lot to do what Sanders did to come onstage and shine a spotlight on himself and a team that had no idea this was coming. But it worked. So well, in fact, that other people want a bit of that magic — and can you blame them? I understand the disappointment that happens when athletes make personal decisions in communal spaces — and coaching at an HBCU is familial, and Sanders knew that when he took the position and will face the backlash that comes with walking out, even if that was the best move for him to make.
But it’s not like we don’t do this all the time. There are millions of us who attended a PWI, took a job with a white company and moved into an all-white neighborhood — and your Blackness is not in question. You didn’t sell out the Black community. In fact, much like Sanders, you did what was best for you and your family.
Did Sanders use an HBCU as a launching pad for his coaching career? Of course he did. But fair exchange is not a robbery. In three years, Sanders did more for Jackson State than anyone has. He didn’t just lend his talents; he lent his celebrity and his cachet with other celebrities to ensure that Jackson State would be in a better position once he left. One example: this video of rapper-turned-podcaster Gillie da Kid on Jackson State’s bus with Meek Mill on Facetime so the team could rap the “Dreams and Nightmares” intro before the championship game.