The Widening Divide: HBCUs and the 2023 NFL Draft

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.

Dr. Al-Tony Gilmore, a Distinguished Historian Emeritus of the National Education Association, has researched, lectured, and published widely on the intersection of sports and society, including his seminal book, Bad Nigger: The National Impact of Jack Johnson (Kennikat Press, 1975). He has been a history professor at Howard University, the University of Maryland, and a visiting scholar at George Washington University. He recently curated the widely acclaimed Voter Suppression Exhibit at the Maltz Museum in Cleveland, Ohio.

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  1. POSTSCRIPT: The odds defying and stunning results of the four HBCU low draft round picks in 2022 is worthy of note, but obviously did not persuade NFL teams to draft as many from the list of HBCU draft prospects for 2023. All four made the rosters of the teams that selected them, each earning substantial playing time. Three made the starting line-ups and one helped the Kansas City Chiefs win the SuperBowl. They were Joshua Williams of the Chiefs, (Fayetteville State University); Cobie Durant of the Los Angeles Rams, (South Carolina State University); James Houston of the Detroit Lions, (Jackson State University); and Ja’ Tyre Carter of the Chicago Bears (Southern University).

  2. Depressing, but an excellent, on point analysis of the intersection between HBCU’s and the NFL draft. The path to the NFL for blacks, is through powerhouse PWI’s. We fought and died for integration and now we have it “lock, stock and barrel.

  3. I enjoyed reading your article HBCU draft for professional Football has declined over the years Dr Tony Gilmore I agree with you 100% these small Black
    does have the same Education level as the big Institution they set the standards what Schools and Division or bringing In Intergration Is the Law now
    they can getting around the race issue more Money to be maded from the larger business market , Sports Is now one of the largest money making Institute now and forever. Basically they can do what they want to and not have to expand It to anyone other dan the NFL they or following the guild line set forth by the University who has the clued , Now the Colleges or going to
    Has pay the College player a very good step In the direction I feel you Dr Al Tony Gilmore my hat off to you a Gentleman and Scholar we can not stop the Bomb Rush smile just a joke .We need to come at the NFL and other meaning the Board Members who set on these Comitteds to change their minds. Again Great Article God bless .


  4. I find your overall analysis to be very superficial. Your proposition, “[o]ver 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” is equivalent to saying slave owners were not racist because they “employed” enslaved Africans. Racism is the reason why HBCUs are underfunded. Systemic racism is why there are no Black owners. Racism is not the ONLY reason why HBCU players are not selected in the draft but it is a part of the reason. Inferior facilities and lack of access to media coverage are all due to the systemic racism that impacts HBCUs. PWIs (especially Power 5s) are much better resourced and that is due to the wealth of the donors and alumni.

    The generational wealth that benefits PWIs is due to racism. Going back to former slaveholders getting reparations after the Civil War, the GI bill going only to white veterans after WWII, redlining in Black communities, and Black men being unable to purchase life insurance until recent decades, just to name a few. Tenn State for example has been robbed by the state government to the tune of $250 million.

    Black athletes at PWIs have no option other than to play for the Power 5 to increase the odds of going pro. The NFL selects the best talent from the PWIs is for the benefit of the NFL, not because its not a racist institution.

  5. Thank you for your feedback. Some of what you offer, I agree. Perhaps, I should have said that racism is not the “only” factor in the NFL draft, because it is a complex process and it is as biased against all smaller schools as it is against HBCUs. — that’s the central point of my article. The integration of intercollegiate athletics –which gained momentum in the late 1960s — ultimately drained the monopoly HBCUs once had on the best Black athletic talent.
    But your main point which is that historic racism has disadvantaged HBCUs cannot be refuted, and it is one that has anchored my writings on HBCUs. Racism remains in the NFL on many levels, and especially in the hiring of Black head coaches.
    On another note, you’re wrong. The GI Bill was not exclusive to White veterans, and it is untrue that Black men were unable to purchase life insurance until recent decades. –though White insurance companies have a long history of discriminating against Black people.

  6. Well, there are many options available to young black athletes these days. First, they can go to a state-supported college or university program; or they can go to a community college which is a stepping stone for many players. As time passed, some black athletes may opt to go into coaching or join a college or university staff for a good salary. We have made good progress, but much more needs to be done. But overall, I agree that HBCU and small college student football athletes are good or even better than some that attend larger colleges or universities.

  7. The only thing superficial was your pathetic attempt to justify why players from HBCU not being drafted is not racism. Before mass integration of blacks to whites schools the NFL thought talent in HBCU’s was pretty good, considering all of the athletes that was drafted. No, this not drafting athletes from HBCU’s is a recent collaboration between power five schools and the NFL to show black athletes that if they go back to HBCU’s in response to the continuing social racial divide that risk the chance of ending their professional dreams. That’s why Deion went to Colorado.

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