They attract money and attention to the predominantly white universities that showcase them, while HBCUs struggle. What would happen if they collectively decided to go to black schools?
By Jemele Hill | The Atlantic | October 2019
In the summer of 2018 Kayvon Thibodeaux, who was then ranked as the top high-school football player in America, visited Florida A&M University, in Tallahassee. When a player of Thibodeaux’s caliber visits a perennial football power—say, Alabama—it’s called Wednesday. But when he visits a historically black college or university (HBCU) like Florida A&M, it threatens to crack the foundation on which the moneymaking edifice of college sports rests.
“I really just wanted to learn the history of FAMU,” Thibodeaux, a defensive end who received a scholarship offer from the school after his freshman year in high school, told me. “And I wanted to show there were more opportunities out there than just big-time Division I schools.”
Ultimately, and perhaps inevitably, Thibodeaux announced that he was going to one of the top football programs in the country, the University of Oregon. “Nobody wants to eat McDonald’s when you can get filet mignon” is how Thibodeaux put it. But over the course of the five months between his visit to FAMU and his decision to enroll at Oregon, Thibodeaux—who gushed about the historically black university on social media—galvanized alumni and boosted national awareness of the institution. It was a moment of hope for HBCUs, and it should have been a moment of fear for the predominantly white institutions whose collective multibillion-dollar revenues have been built largely on the exertions of (uncompensated) black athletes.
The NCAA reported $1.1 billion in revenue for its 2017 fiscal year. Most of that money comes from the Division I men’s-basketball tournament. In 2016, the NCAA extended its television agreement with CBS Sports and Turner Broadcasting through 2032—an $8.8 billion deal. About 30 Division I schools each bring in at least $100 million in athletic revenue every year. Almost all of these schools are majority white—in fact, black men make up only 2.4 percent of the total undergraduate population of the 65 schools in the so-called Power Five athletic conferences. Yet black men make up 55 percent of the football players in those conferences, and 56 percent of basketball players.