By Terrance Harris
This week, ahead of the Jackson State-Texas Southern football game and as a result of the tragic shooting death of rap artist Takeoff, outspoken coach Deion Sanders made national headlines after he told his players they would not be allowed to leave the hotel upon arrival in Houston.
If the nation didn’t know the undefeated and fifth-ranked FCS Tigers were on their way to Houston this weekend they did at that moment.
Sanders, the Pro Football Hall of Famer, is as known as much for his flamboyance and high stepping as he is for intercepting football and backing up his talk with results. And that hasn’t changed a bit since he became Jackson State’s head coach three years ago.
Sanders has always when been media gold and an attention magnet since his playing days, starting at Florida State on through his NFL stardom with the Atlanta Falcons, San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys. He has just always had that flare that draws attention. Let’s be honest, Sanders is a social media post ready to go viral.
There was uncertainty about how that would play in relatively obscure SWAC as Sanders took on his first college coaching job.
But a couple of years in we now see that where Deion goes the attention and success he has enjoyed follows. That has been huge for HBCU athletics in general for the SWAC and Jackson State specifically.
HBCU and SWAC football are experiencing something of a Renaissance as a result of the following Sanders has built and that will be fully on display Saturday night (6 p.m.) when Texas Southern (4-4 overall, 3-2 SWAC) hosts Jackson State (8-0, 5-0) in front of its first sold crowd ever at PNC Stadium (22,039 seating capacity) that was announced Thursday afternoon.
Let’s take a look at the 5 ways Sanders has impacted HBCU and SWAC football.
It hadn’t been since the 1960s that HBCU schools went after the top Black recruits and successfully lured them and back then it was easy because few predominantly white schools in the south offered scholarships to Black players. But Sanders came in unwilling to take a backseat to any program and went head-to-back with the Power 5 programs, last year pulling top recruit Travis Hunter away from a commitment from his alma mater. Sanders and JSU have continued to land top recruits while other HBCU programs have started to recruit other top athletes during this Black Lives Matter and Name Image and Likeness era. Suddenly, it has become commonplace for top Black athletes to have at least one HBCU school on their recruiting visit list. You know you are doing something right when Nick Saban starts accusing your program of unfairly getting recruits paid millions of dollars via NIL money.
Prior to Sanders coming aboard at Jackson State, HBCU and SWAC football had become almost an afterthought to the major networks despite some high-quality football being played at the FCS level. But with some prodding from Sanders and knowing the man nicknamed Prime Time is viewership and rating gold, ESPN came calling. Now, the SWAC has a game being played weekly on one of its platforms. And last weekend to the dismay of much of its viewership, ESPN brought its college football traveling hype show, Game Day, to Jackson, Miss. for the JSU-Southern showdown. It was the first time since 2008 and just the second time in ESPN Game Day history that the pregame show was broadcast from an HBCU campus.
Sanders brought increased national media attention to Jackson State. In addition to ESPN, Sports Illustrated has come calling and most recently Sanders was featured on CBS’ 60-Minutes news magazine show. Sanders recently had the nation chanting “Who is SWAC” in aftermath of a SWAC counterpart questioning Sanders’ commitment to the conference and JSU. Sanders has been outspoken about Black football issues that had sort of tabu for decades like the HBCU programs historically being forced to pay “money games” against Power 5 programs in order to the bills. Sanders pointed out that receiving $300,000 to play those games is not worth it when HBCU players often face serious injury in those games and by the time the school pays all of its travel expenses and splits the money with the band that it really isn’t worth it, especially when similar predominantly white programs get paid in the millions to play those same teams. He has also spoken out against the “Classic Games” that are played early in the season and usually hosted in non-HBCU cities. They make millions of dollars for the organizers but the split between the two competing schools is not close to what is taken in. Jackson State recently announced it is pulling out of the Southern Heritage Classic that annually pits the Tigers against Tennessee State, saying “We got to do better business.” Sanders has also advocated for NIL deals for HBCU players and many now benefit from lucrative deals.
Not only have Jackson State and the SWAC benefited financially from Sanders’ presence and platform but so has the community in which his team plays and the city’s in which his team travels to. It has been estimated that Sanders’ economic impact on the city of Jackson has been about $30 million which might have something to do with the recent announcement that the Tigers will soon have a new football stadium built to replace the run-down stadium they currently play in. On the road, stadiums now sell out when Sanders and the Tigers come to town and schools sometimes opt for bigger venues for their home games which Sanders is quick to point out. The Tigers game against TSU this weekend, for instance, is sold out for Saturday’s game with the Astros playing the Phillies in Game 6 of the World Series less than a half mile away. It’s the largest home crowd that TSU has played in front of since 2012.
Many of the players Sanders played against in the NFL are now NFL decision-makers and Sanders’ opinions on potential NFL players matter. “We want 10 (HBCU players drafted),” Sanders said prior to the 2022 NFL Draft. “Next year we want 15 to 17. Then we want 15 to 20. And then it’s going to go crazy after that. That’s the goal. Consistent progress.” The NFL will now host its second HBCU Combine where student-athletes can now be seen. And while Doug Williams and James Harris are the co-founders of the event, it seemed to gain steam once Sanders started making noise about the lack of opportunity for HBCU student-athletes.