Deion Sanders has caused a shift of tectonic plates in the college football world. Since March 2020, Travis Hunter, the No. 1 overall football recruit in America, has been committed to Florida State. Hunter reiterated his commitment to the university in both September and October. The Tampa Times wrote just yesterday that Hunter had been a lifelong Florida State fan and was going to headline a potential top-10 recruiting class for the program after hitting its biggest post-Bobby Bowden low with a loss to Jacksonville State.
The rumor mill started running at V8 power late this morning, early-signing day. Rumors that the most recognizable athlete in the history of Florida State had swooped in and taken the best college football player in the land from the place where he originally became famous. Then it happened. On a livestream hosted by Atlanta’s 11 Alive News, from Collins Hill High School in Suwanee, Ga., Hunter put on quite the production.
Hunter had the three hats in front of him like most top players do — Florida State, Georgia, and Auburn. He launched the Auburn hat off of the table. Hunter next put the Georgia hat on his head, but threw that one in the crowd. Then he put on the Florida State, and didn’t do too bad at staying in character before throwing that one in the crowd and asking for a different hat. Hunter unzipped his hoodie to reveal a Jackson State IBelieve T-shirt and caught a Jackson State hat. Sanders flipped the No. 1 overall recruit in America to an HBCU. An FCS program.
It’s not as if Jackson State has never had high profile talent at its football program. When Ole Miss brought in the program’s first Black player 1971, Walter Payton went to Jackson State and would go on to become one of the greatest football players of all time. HBCUs do still put talent into the NFL, even though they don’t send as much ever since Power 5 football fully integrated. As of cutdown day — Sept. 1, 2021 — there were 18 players from HBCUs on NFL rosters, including two-time first-team All Pro linebacker Darius Leonard of the Indianapolis Colts, who was drafted in the second round of the 2018 NFL Draft.
While there are still good players at HBCUs, a ready-made talent like Hunter is unusual. Those players normally fall through the cracks, or are late bloomers. Hunter could’ve started from Day 1 at Florida State or any other major college football program.
Sanders’ personality and status as one of the most influential figures in the history of football likely played a large role in Hunter’s decision, it’s likely there were some above board financial reasons that heavily factored into it. Yahoo’s Pete Thamel tweeted out that it is believed NIL money was a major reason for Hunter changing his commitment. Sports Illustrated’s Pat Forde tweeted out that he’s heard quite a bit of discussion about NIL at HBCUs.
For those who complained about NIL money damaging competitive balance in college sports, check out the little guy. Sure, Sanders is plugged in and the program has a relationship with Barstool Sports (original reports of Hunter signing an endorsement deal with Barstool are reportedly false) but there is no way to paint this as the rich getting richer.
It’s going to take a while for the reverberations from this plate shift to settle to see what this means for the future of college sports. What does this mean for programs who are even bigger than Jackson State but still not considered premiere? What about Houston, DePaul, or even St. John’s? The Johnnies play in the media capital of the world. If they really want to get back near the top of men’s college basketball for the first time in nearly 30 years, Jackson State appears to have shown them the way.
This way, while not perfect, is still better than what college sports were in the past — universities pumping money like they do air for the balls into athletic facilities and dorms for the athletes. That’s pulling the Silicon Valley move of making the workspace as inviting as possible so the employees will stay longer, except, for college athletes, none of the Silicon Valley money the coaches and administrators get.
So far this new era of college athletics is athletes getting better compensation and top-level talent going to places they normally would not. It appears that NIL is working out just fine.