It was never going to work. Not in a million years.
From the moment that Makur Maker made history last year by choosing Howard over the top college hoops programs in the country, becoming the highest-rated college basketball prospect to choose an HBCU since ESPN’s recruiting database started in 2007, it was destined to be a failure. The Bison were coming off a 4-29 season, head coach Kenny Blakeney was only in his second year, and the program hadn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 1992.
Those who looked at the facts always understood that this was going to be a bad marriage. Howard’s program wasn’t established enough to handle the immediate expectations, while Maker was never a good enough player to be HBCU basketball’s immediate savior. It all came crashing down on Tuesday, as the school announced that the program was canceling the remainder of the season due to COVID-19.
“We had several team members test positive in January, and were forced to place the program on hold, cancel several games and finally cancel our season. It was and remains the right thing for us to do,” said Blakeney in a statement. “Ultimately, our number one priority is to ensure the health and safety of our student-athletes, both mentally and physically. Canceling the season is in the best interest of the team at this time.”
In total, Howard played all of five games as they finished the season 1-4. Over the past two seasons, their record is 5-33. Maker only appeared in two games this season — averaging 11.5 points and 6.0 rebounds — due to being shut down “indefinitely” with a groin injury in November. Last month, Maker announced that he was one of the members of the team that had COVID-19, as the virus derailed Howard’s season. On top of Maker’s situation, Howard had nationally-televised games against Notre Dame (FOX) and North Carolina Central (ESPN) canceled, as Nojel Eastern, a 6-foot-7 transfer from Purdue, opted out of the season, while three-star commit Kuluel Mading decided to reopen his recruitment.
Suddenly, all of the hype that Maker’s arrival had created was gone.
Ironically, it was that hype that destined this experiment for disaster. Too many people, journalists, media members, and networks that didn’t attend an HBCU, had spent any time covering HBCU sports, or had any idea how HBCUs work, were the loudest ones in the room. They led a conversation they knew nothing about. It was like watching a panel of men discuss how pregnancy changes the human body.
To them, this was a “game-changer.” ESPN literally said that, while FOX Sports said the decision was “huge,” as if Maker’s commitment to Howard was going to magically change the landscape of HBCU basketball.
“I definitely think it’s going to generate a lot of wealth towards our people,” Maker told told ESPN. “It’s the players that make the TV exposure. It’s the players that make these deals.”
Due to COVID, none of that happened. But from the little we did see from Howard this season, there’s an argument to be made that if we did, we wouldn’t have liked what we saw on the court from that exposure. Because if Maker really wanted to be a “game-changer,” then North Carolina Central was the school he should have chosen. The Eagles have also had their season ravaged by COVID as they sit at 4-5 on the season. However, since LeVelle Moton came back to take over at his alma mater in 2009, NCCU has made the NCAA Tournament four times since 2014, as the premier basketball program in HBCU hoops.
On Friday, The Undefeated and ESPN+ will debut Why Not Us, an 8-episode docu-series on NCCU’s program that’s being executive produced by North Carolina native Chris Paul and HBCU alum and ESPN voice Stephen A. Smith. The irony of this series debuting the same week that Howard and Maker are officially shutting things down can’t be ignored.
If the game is ever going to change in HBCU athletics, then it will happen by investing resources and giving exposure to these schools and their athletic programs, giving them all the tools necessary to recruit and retain 3, 4, and 5-star athletes. That way they can build and sustain programs that have proven that they can not only recruit top-tier talent, but also have traditions of excellence, of winning, and of sending kids to the pros.
That’s the blueprint that must be followed. Quick fixes will never work. This is why Deion Sanders’ arrival as the head football coach at Jackson State will be a cautionary tale, as the same hype and unachievable expectations that were put on Maker and Howard are starting to take form with Sanders at JSU.
Between the elaborate pomp and circumstances and the excessive levels of propaganda that Sanders has already spread, people are ignoring the fact that a man that hasn’t been a head coach or coordinator on any level in college, is about to take over one of the most historically successful programs in HBCU football history. From “Good Morning America” to ESPN, Sanders has already made the media rounds discussing what he intends to accomplish at JSU without anyone bringing up his troubled past when it comes to amateur sports.
In 2019, Sanders was an offensive coordinator at Trinity Christian-Cedar Hill when the school was kicked out of the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools after a slew of probations and violations. In 2016, the Dallas Morning News did a deep dive into Sanders’ “Prime Prep” school that was an epic failure, as he was once fired, re-hired, fired, and re-hired again at the school. Last December, the Washington Post did a story on multiple student-athletes from Sanders’ school that had their lives upended for attending it.
But yet, the cameras and fanfare are, once again, only focused on what could happen instead of what needs to happen. Makur Maker’s marriage to Howard didn’t work, and Sanders’ relationship with Jackson State could also end in an ugly divorce. But, what both situations have proven is that the desire and hunger are there for HBCU athletics to be promoted and pushed to the forefront.
Given what has taken place in Washington D.C. and what could be on the horizon in Jackson, Miss., now is not the time to abandon ship. This is the moment when networks and fans should double-down on HBCU athletics. Because while the stock may be low right now, a major cash-out is coming from that investment.