by Al-Tony Gilmore
During his short and celebrated tenure as head football coach at Jackson State University, Deion Sanders was unprecedented in introducing HBCU football and its issues to the major media and the general public. One concern troubling him most was the overall NFL dismissal of the football talent pool at HBCUs during its annual draft. His indignation could not be silenced when no HBCU prospect was selected in the 2021 draft, followed by a marginal improvement of four low-round draft picks in 2022.
Nothing moved the HBCU needle in the draft. To the contrary, the 2023 draft was worse than the 2022 draft. Of the 259 players selected in the 2023 NFL draft, only one HBCU player, Isaiah Bolden of Jackson State University, was chosen with the 245th overall pick by the New England Patriots.
How and why this happened is complex and likely has nothing to do with racism, because while there are only five Black NFL head coaches, Blacks represent 56 percent of the league’s players. None of the 32 team owners are Black, but at the front office level where personnel decisions are made there has been considerable progress. There are nine Black general managers and seven team presidents. In recent seasons between 35 and 40 percent of assistant coaches have been Black. All of them have careers that are wholly dependent upon developing winning teams, and all are committed to having the best players available for every slot on the team roster.
The stakes are too large to ignore any player who can contribute to winning, regardless of the school they attended. But the perception that almost no HBCU players are NFL worthy is one that has currency among both White and Black draft pick decision-makers. In fact, a strong argument can be made that all 32 teams attended the HBCU Combine not because they believed there was talent to be found, but more because it was the politically correct thing to do, and because being in attendance did not require any obligations or commitments. To phrase it another way, the optics of being there are better than the optics of not being there.
NFL teams are loathed to take risks with any draft pick, and all players on the coveted 53-man rosters are considered financial commodities, having been examined thoroughly for every athletic, intelligence, and emotional element of the sport of professional football. Players are the core investments in the multi-billion dollar NFL enterprise. NFL decision-makers prefer players from the Power Five conferences. That is where the level of competition and investment in player development are highest, and where there is a monopoly on the best college players and the highest percentage of top high school recruits.
The NCAA’s FBS Division I (Football Bowl Subdivision) is the category of the power football programs, representing 128 schools. Players from these schools dominate the NFL draft. An analysis of the 2023 NFL draft illustrates this point. Of the 259 players selected in the draft, 206 were from Power Five conferences
By and large, NFL teams simply do not believe that HBCUs and other smaller schools and lower-level conferences are breeding grounds for NFL talent. Over 50 percent of players chosen in the 2023 NFL draft were Black, as were 90 percent of those chosen in the first round – all from Power Five conferences. Racism, therefore, is not a factor in the draft.
Looking forward, the draft future is less than sanguine for HBCUs, lower mid-major conferences, and small college players with NFL ambitions. This should not mean, however, that the surging interest in HBCU football among fans, alumni, and the general public cannot be sustained. The well-attended games and social events such as the Heritage Bowl, the Bayou Classic, the Orange Blossom Classic, the Legacy Bowl, and annual rivalry games continue to draw large crowds. It is important to note that the increasing popularity of these games is not dependent upon the outcomes of the NFL draft, nor should the NFL draft be a factor in HBCU conference contracts with ESPN and other sports networks or NIL deals for HBCU athletes.
When Willam Faulkner wrote, ” The past is never dead. It’s not even past ” he was wrong about HBCUs and the NFL draft. It is over as we once knew it. The train of the NFL draft left the HBCU station and those of smaller schools years ago, and it is unpredictable how often it will return, but when it does it will be infrequent. Fueled by the integration of intercollegiate sports, times have changed. The conditions which enabled hundreds upon hundreds of HBCU players to be drafted, with 34 going on to be enshrined in the NFL Hall of Fame, no longer exist. At the same time, HBCU football programs can and should continue to survive without success in the NFL draft or the bullhorn of its premier and sui generis pitchman, Deion Sanders — who was unable to persuade the NFL to think differently about HBCU football talent.