HBCUs are landing top recruits — but systemic change requires something more

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“There is no difference between a professional and an amateur in reality, except that a higher standard of honor is expected of one than of the other,” Du Bois wrote Sept. 19, 1936, in the Pittsburgh Courier. “This the law and public opinion may easily remedy. It is to the clear interest of the Negro athletes to help abolish the distinction between Professional and Amateur in athletic competitions.”

But no one changed how so-called amateur games treated Black athletes then. And no one has changed it since. It is a problem of equity and is the most critical issue facing what we call the revenue-generating college sports, football and basketball.

Over the past several months, however, it has been suggested that some sort of seismic shift was taking place in these games colleges play only for their own pay. A few elite teenage Black male athletes chose to play basketball or football at the HBCUs where Du Bois learned and lectured — where they often had little choice but to play for much of the 20th century — rather than at the predominantly White institutions where, since the 1980s, they have helped generate billions of dollars. Their decisions to go Black were touted in some corners as game changers.

I was reminded of that misnomer last week, when Howard University announced it was sidelining its men’s basketball season because of the coronavirus. This had been the most-anticipated season in forever for D.C.’s famous HBCU, where Du Bois spoke often and received an honorary degree. The small historic campus on a small rise in the city’s most-storied Black neighborhood, LeDroit Park — where Black luminaries such as Duke Ellington and Sen. Edward Brooke were born and reared, and others, such as Paul Laurence Dunbar, relocated to and lived — was again making history.

Last summer, a 6-foot-11 teenage basketball wunderkind of East African roots, Makur Maker, chose it for his collegiate basketball career rather than some predominantly White institution with a highly regarded multimillion-dollar basketball program such as Kentucky, UCLA and Memphis, all of which he was said to have spurned in favor of the Bison. Maker was so good, it was said he could go to the NBA after one year at Howard if he chose. He was what we call a five-star recruit, the first such highly regarded basketball talent (since anyone started keeping track of such things) to go to an HBCU since segregation around White campuses started eroding — at least for Black male athletes who could attract the TV rights fees and ticket sales that made the White men who ran those sports not only winners but rich.

His decision led another highly regarded Black high school player, Mikey Williams, to congratulate Maker, to suggest he might follow Maker to an HBCU.

Many of us have long wondered about or championed, quite selfishly, the idea of the best young Black athletes migrating back to the HBCUs where their predecessors once starred, turning them into nationally relevant programs that could compete with large state and powerful private athletic programs for prestige and gobs of money. I said selfishly because many of us who advocate for such a radical change didn’t ourselves choose HBCUs for college.

But it is all quite shortsighted unless HBCUs are going to treat Black athletic talent more equitably than the Marylands, Virginias, Dukes and other predominantly White institutions do.

Because the game isn’t about where those particular laborers go but about whether those laborers get to share in the wealth they create — no matter where they toil.

Maker played but two games after enduring injury and the coronavirus, the university reported. The team lost both of those games and four out of the only five games it tipped off. The coronavirus caused the cancellation of its showcase game against Notre Dame, which undoubtedly promised a pretty paycheck. So Howard didn’t even cash in on Maker’s novelty.

More importantly, Maker and his teammates didn’t cash in either, which was Du Bois’s point all those years ago. Call it a myth of Black athletics.

“The excitement about Makur Maker’s decision was premature,” Joseph Cooper, a University of Massachusetts Boston professor and author of the forthcoming “A Legacy of African American Resistance and Activism Through Sport,” emailed me last week. “But it did plant a seed of thought in many people’s minds that [historically White institutions] are not the only way to go. With players such as LaMelo Ball, Jalen Green, and others deciding to bypass the NCAA and with the Fair Play to Pay Act coming down the pipeline, I think the cracks in the system are gradually beginning to widen and eventually the system will not be sustainable unless it decides to alter its bylaws to engage in more equitable practices with the college athletes.”

But unless and until the college athletic economic model is changed — or HBCUs can and do create their own new model — “the amateur athlete,” as Du Bois wrote, “is involved in deceit.”

And the real game remains unchanged.

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