Former ESPN host Jemele Hill previously came under fire after criticizing President Donald Trump for being a “white supremacist” following the violent “Unite the Right” riot in Charlottesville, VA. Just under a year later, she parted ways with the sports network, choosing instead to write for The Atlantic, where she’s had the chance to discuss the intersection between sports, race, and politics.
In her first article for the magazine, she stirred up controversy yet again. Titled “It’s Time for Black Athletes to Leave White Colleges,” the piece explores how predominantly white institutions exploit Black athletes while historically Black colleges and universities suffer financially.
Hill repeatedly points to the exploitation of Black men by white institutions, emphasizing how they are disproportionately represented in athletics as compared to general enrollment. While Black men make up around 2.4% of the undergraduate populations in the Power Five athletic conferences, they represent 55% of football players and 56% of basketball players at these schools. These players are uncompensated due to the NCAA’s Fair Pay to Play Act, which prevents student-athletes from accepting endorsements or sponsorships. The association has brought in over $1 billion annually for the past several years, with money distributed to coaches, schools, NCAA officials, and everyone except the athletes who generate the revenue. Additionally, the top schools for athletics rake in over $100 million per year, while HBCUs receive a fraction of these revenues.
Black colleges’ athletic departments were integral at their inception. Federally funded Black institutions provided resources and opportunity despite segregation, which permeated law and society. The development of sports teams on these campuses united Black pride with one of the most celebrated parts of American culture—football. These programs thrived, producing NFL stars like Walter Payton, Jerry Rice, and Deacon Jones. Following Brown v. Board of Education, however, many schools also struggled in the process of desegregation, losing prominent athletes to predominantly white institutions because they had better funding and resources. In 2017, Prairie View A&M—the HBCU with the most amount of money generated from athletics—brought in less than $18 million in revenue.
At schools like Grambling State in Louisiana, a decrease in funding and revenues has led to a desperate need to improve facilities. Hill argues that the only way to increase their revenue is to recruit and enroll an elite group of Black athletes, which could “spark a national conversation” and “change the place of HBCUs in American culture.” However, Black athletes staking their careers on endorsements and the chance at a draft pick are much more likely to choose a school known for funneling kids into the NFL and NBA. She points to Kayvon Thibodeaux, the top high school football player in 2018, who generated considerable media chatter around HBCUs just from visiting and considering Florida A&M University before ultimately choosing the University of Oregon.
Hill’s argument is bold: young, Black athletes should collectively use their positions to bring much-needed revenue to HBCUs. However, placing pressures on young athletes to affect change in a system that “uses the labor of black folks to make white folks rich” is reductive and draws away from the issue at hand. Black people have been and continue to be systematically disenfranchised in the American education system, and collegiate athletics is only one factor in the ubiquitous issue of institutionalized racism.
We wonder why Black students make up only 4% of Boston College’s undergraduate population and around 25% of the varsity athletes on campus. The issue of imbalances in the racial makeup of student enrollment and varsity athletics does not point just to white institutions exploiting Black athletes. Many hail Affirmative Action as a solution to the disproportionate representation of Black and Latino students in elite PWIs, while others criticize it as a detriment to white students’ admission. What both of these arguments fail to address is that underrepresentation has persisted despite Affirmative Action as a result of deeply ingrained and perpetuated inequity for people of color.
HBCUs were historically supported by white, religious institutions or elite philanthropists who dominated curricula and often conserved segregationist and disenfranchising programming. These schools have not reached the level of independence that PWIs like Boston College have reached and they are greatly dependent on federal funding from the white-dominated American government. According to the Association of Public Land-grant Universities, several states have been failing to match federal funding to the HBCUs that were given land-grant status in 1890, forcing many schools to operate on inadequate budgets.
For the past decade, Congress has allocated $255 million in federal funding for minority-serving institutions through the Higher Education Act, but those funds expired on Sept. 30. Conflict in the Senate over potential bills to renew funding has created uncertainty with research grants, materials, scholarships, and put entire programs at stake.
HBCUs are a driving force behind the development of a Black professional class. Though they make up only 3 percent of four-year colleges in the United States, HBCUs have produced 80% of Black judges, 50% of Black lawyers, 50% of Black doctors, 40% of Black engineers, 40% of the Black members of Congress, and 13% of Black CEOs. Many of the students who graduate from these programs do so with forms of financial assistance. Reduced resources in any capacity can drive applicants towards PWIs, where huge endowments and federal aid are well-established.
Boosting HBCUs’ athletics programs does not seem a likely fix to the persisting inequity experienced by people of color; it fails to address that HBCUs are in dire need of federal funding. Funding that goes directly from the NCAA to athletic departments may have trickle-down effects, but nothing as immediate as allocated funds for research and program development. These would encourage the development of professionals who have the power to change the dialogue around race by example, and who play a role in closing the racial wealth and college achievement gaps.
While Jemele Hill places undue emphasis on the Black athlete’s role in society, she does acknowledge that there is a long-held resistance to Black empowerment. She proposes solutions that, while seemingly reductive, are a stab at the structures exhibited by society and force the media to consider what really is the right way to deal with inequality. But one thing is for certain: we need to fix a broken education system that prevents people from access to opportunity and resources. As Malcolm X once stated, “Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.”