Despite an uneven economic playing field, HBCU athletic programs vow to keep winning

Despite an uneven economic playing field, HBCU athletic programs vow to keep winning
Morehouse’s new athletic director Harold Ellis

Photograph by Lynsey Weatherspoon

One of Atlanta’s wild storms just blew through. You know, the ones with the sideways rain, dancing lightning, and downed trees. Jerel Drew, Clark Atlanta University’s new athletic director, has some fallen branches near his house, but right now he’s driving to survey the damage on campus. “In Atlanta, you have all these pine trees,” says Drew. “They’ve been doing cleanup at school since six this morning.”

Over the past few years, HBCUs have been at the center of their own perfect storm—especially in their athletic departments. Back in 2020, on the heels of George Floyd’s murder, corporations hurled millions of dollars toward Black institutions of higher learning as a sign of racial solidarity.

And in the fall of that same year, NFL legend Deion Sanders took over head football coaching duties at Jackson State University, bringing a winning philosophy and did-you-hear-that? soundbites to Mississippi.

The combination flooded HBCUs with hoopla they hadn’t seen in decades. But the thing with downpours is that the water eventually recedes. Donations dried up just like those black squares on people’s social feeds. And Sanders, after compiling a 27–6 record in three seasons at JSU, took his talents to the University of Colorado, a PWI with a big budget. Some fans disapproved of him taking the five-year, $29.5 million deal. Others thanked him for bringing a spotlight to HBCU sports and culture. Neither side debates his impact.

“The one thing I tell people is that Deion provided an amazing playbook to how you can obtain successful sponsorships and things,” says Drew. “We just have to continue to think outside the box, expand, showcase our facilities, showcase our talent.”

Fort Valley State University, an HBCU of 3,000 students that sits southwest of Macon, competes in the Atlanta-headquartered Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SIAC) alongside CAU and Morehouse College. FVSU has two games airing on ESPNU and ESPN2 this season. Without the “Deion Sanders effect,” does that happen?

No matter your take on Sanders, one truth is that athletic programs at the 10 Georgia-based HBCUs still have financial issues to confront. According to College Factual, Fort Valley State’s annual athletic budget is $2.6 million. CAU’s is $4.3 million. And while those numbers may sound significant, they’re mere trickles compared to the $169 million the University of Georgia allotted for sports expenses in 2022.

“When dealing with an HBCU, it’s a grind,” says new Morehouse athletic director Harold Ellis. “I can’t be like Georgia Tech’s AD and sit down and have corporate sponsors come to me. I gotta go get them. I call it hand-to-hand, door-to-door combat. We gotta be in the streets. I gotta be vigilant in the community and with these businesses.”

The proverbial finger can be pointed at a number of reasons for the PWI–HBCU economic discrepancy—a lack of corporate support, booster shortcomings—but none of that is helping today’s athlete. If these schools are going to survive, the winds of change must be felt now.

One place where that’s happening is with the players. More talented Black athletes are ignoring the pull of PWIs to help HBCUs win. Coach Sanders lured 2022’s number one overall football prospect, Travis Hunter, to Jackson State. Stellar forward Shy Odom got scholarship offers from Georgetown and Penn State, but he chose Howard University in 2021. More players mean more wins, and more wins mean more attention, and more attention means more dollars.

Here in Georgia, Kelvin Durham did something similar. The gifted QB left south Florida to attend Fort Valley State. “The main thing that made me love [Fort Valley State] is the family culture,” says Durham, a sophomore who’s SIAC’s preseason offensive player of the year. “Forget about football—they make sure I’m good off the field, good at school. They make sure I have stuff to eat and have transportation. Just the love they show me and everybody.”

Players deserve more platforms for their skills to be displayed, too. An ESPN game sprinkled here and there is cool, but consistent coverage is needed to build something sustainable. And that’s where websites like the baseball-centered Black College Nines come into play. Jay Sokol’s site celebrates past HBCU legends, like Florida A&M’s Andre Dawson, while also promoting future stars.

Outlets like Minority Baseball Prospects create talent showcases and tournaments at smaller schools for Black ballplayers who otherwise would have gone unnoticed. Now in its third year, the MBP HBCU All-Star Game, held at Gwinnett County’s Coolray Field, featured 50 players from around the country this past June, with Dawson and Grambling State great Ralph Garr as coaches.

“Scouts are able to come to an all-star game and see them play,” says MBP president Reggie Hollins, doing his part to increase the number of American-born Black players in MLB from its current 6.2 percent, its lowest mark since 1991. “And then they go to their respective schools [and watch more games]. That’s the whole point—not only just to have them come to this event, but to push them to see some really good talent at the schools. Don’t overlook it.”

MBP also has a women’s softball component, which is major, since female student-athletes always have to fight for exposure. Clark Atlanta had an amazing ’23 women’s tennis season. The Lady Panthers track team finished second in the SIAC Championship. And though its softball squad had only two victories in ’21, CAU won 19 games this year. But be honest: Did you know any of that?

“I still feel like we have a long way to go when it comes to women in athletics,” says Lawanda Pearson, CAU softball coach for the past 20 seasons. “And when you look at the percentages of women leaders in athletics, you’re looking at a percentage that’s still less than 10 percent. We are in some leadership positions, so that’s good. Is it at a significant level? Absolutely not. I’m talking titles and pay. It’s just not there.”

Brighter days are ahead, though. Thanks to donations from the Atlanta Braves, CAU softball was recently gifted a state-of-the-art batting cage. Opportunities in other sports are springing up for more female athletes, too. Howard and Fisk recently became the first HBCUs to field women’s rugby and gymnastics teams, respectively.

But circumstances at those institutions are different from CAU’s. Those are bigger HBCUs with heftier budgets. Athletic director Drew must be more strategic with the way he spends. The man is cleaning up storm debris on his own campus, after all.

“We can’t go into many details, but CAU will be expanding,” says Drew. “We’re going to increase our sports inventory. We’re looking at, within the next two years, adding a couple more sports. We’re excited about what it can do for us as far as opening a new door for recruiting, but also providing us a new sport that we can market around.”

HBCU fans can’t help but smile at that forecast.

Meet Morehouse’s new athletic director, Harold Ellis (class of ’92)

What’s your first order of business as Morehouse AD?
I have six pillars that I want to start with: financial management, operational excellence, student experience, community engagement, human capital, and maintenance and facilities. All of those things I thought we needed to improve on or enhance.

How do you regenerate excitement for Maroon Tigers sports?
I think Deion Sanders did a really good job of it. He was on every social platform, right? We are going to be on every social platform. And I told Morehouse president Dr. David A. Thomas, whatever event you can’t make, I wanna make. Every one you miss, I wanna be there. I wanna double down on our exposure.

How do you draw more talent to Morehouse?
This is Georgia. If we can get the next-tier guy in football, [we’ll be competitive]. If we can just get kids here in Atlanta to stay home. We’re gonna focus on Southeastern athletes that these bigger schools are not getting.

This article appears in our October 2023 issue.