Top-tier black college athletes should take their talents to historically black institutions. That's the argument that Jemele Hill is making in a new piece for The Atlantic. She says that doing so could benefit both the colleges and the communities around them.
The piece, It's Time for Black Athletes to Leave White Colleges, argues that when highly-ranked black athletes even look at HBCUs, it "threatens to crack the foundation on which the moneymaking edifice of college sports rests" — that foundation being black athletes drawing acclaim, attention, and money to primarily white institutions.
It's an argument that has drawn some criticism — Hill says she's been called a "segregationist" for even suggesting the idea. To that, she says, "those people don't know very much about HBCUs." (Of course, Hill is no stranger to that kind of critique. She famously drew the ire of President Trump and his supporters after referring to him as a white supremacist on Twitter.)
Hill spoke to All Things Considered about the piece.
On the history of student athletes at HBCUs
That was exclusively where [black students] could go, and as a result you had a lot of the top talent. At that point in time you had a college like Grambling State University, which was basically considered to be what would be today's version of the University of Alabama, because they were that talented, putting so many players in the NFL over the course of their history. But obviously once there was desegregation, a lot of these black athletes began to go all over. HBCUs in the major revenue sports — talking about basketball and football — began to lose, or not have as much of a foothold.
If you look at the college landscape now, everybody pretty much knows [it] has become a billion dollar industry, given the television contracts, the money, the interest, the marketing, shoe deals, all of that. But black athletes in general are being exploited, because they're not being paid, and they're clearly the backbone of a lot of these universities, of which their labor has helped them become these huge powerhouses. You're looking at schools like Texas and Alabama who have a 200 million dollar athletic budget — not a school budget, just the athletic budget. All that is built on the backs of black athletes.
HBCUs generally speaking do not have large endowments, nothing that could equal any of some of the universities like Harvard. Why not take your talent to these HBCUs that once were the only place that you could go, and help to reimagine those universities from a financial standpoint the communities around them and to some degree kind of rebuild these historic institutions.
On what it would take for this to work
You would need a group, frankly, a whole exodus of athletes who would think really really really big picture in order for this to happen.
It can't be one or two, because one or two is not enough. There have been individual cases of a top-tier black talent going to these schools. But they need a wave of a conscientious effort on behalf of these athletes to do that, to help to rebuild these schools, the communities around them. And I think it will be a trickle down effect into strengthening essentially a huge base in the black community, which has always been kind of the black middle class. When you look at the number of lawyers, doctors, professionals that have come from HBCUs, I mean Kamala Harris is running for president. She went to Howard University. So when you look at the level of output that most black colleges have in general, to strengthen that even more with a very solvent, steady, stable financial base I think is just a huge benefit all around.
On the precedent for this kind of movement in athletics
We see this happen a lot in college football and college basketball, where you have athletes who have been playing together in high school, maybe on the same team. Because a lot of these guys play on the same AAU teams, two or three of them will go to one university, because they all want to play together.
One of the more famous examples is [University of Michigan's] Fab Five: Jalen Rose and Chris Webber both are from Detroit, both had a relationship, and they got to know the other members — Juwan Howard, Ray Jackson and Jimmy King. And five freshmen went to the University of Michigan and changed college basketball.
I don't see why that couldn't happen for an HBCU. I mean look, we've seen a lot of these athletes. They have chosen to go to smaller schools or be walk ons sometimes at some of these bigger schools. My thing is like, why be a walk somewhere? Go to an HBCU.
I know I was speaking from a standpoint of utter utopia. It's a little bit more more challenging than that. But I do think it's possible. I think some of it has to be a concerted push, and some of this has to come from their own homes.
When I was making my college decision, no one talked to me about going to an HBCU. I'm from Detroit, and that's a black city, right? I knew other people who had gone, but nobody said, "Hey, did you ever think about going here now?" Two HBCUs wound up being on my final list of colleges, and I owe that to the Cosby Show and A Different World.
On the exposure athletes get at larger schools
As we've seen always has been the case in sports, and really virtually anything entertainment based, is exposure goes where the talent is. So the exposure would be, to me, the least of the issues, because again, there are players in the NFL and NBA who went to black colleges and they were found. And I think that's part of what I got at in this piece is the mentality that some of these young athletes have. They think the schools make them.
Now I'm not going to pretend that if you go to a black college there are things you have to prove that say, somebody who goes to Oregon or Florida State doesn't have to prove. That being said, teams want to get better, and they want to go where the talent is, and it's the same with television networks. They follow where the audience goes and where the talent is.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Should top black athletes choose historically black colleges and universities over predominantly white ones? Jemele Hill makes that argument in an essay in The Atlantic. She says it would benefit not just the colleges but also the communities around them and, just maybe, those student athletes, too.
Jemele Hill, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
JEMELE HILL: Thank you for having me.
KELLY: So the case you're making is black athletes spring all kinds of money, all kinds of attention to the often predominantly white universities that recruit and showcase them. And meanwhile, historically black colleges are struggling. Is that right?
HILL: Yeah. I mean, that's kind of a basic blueprint that I make. You know, looking at the shape of HBCUs who, generally speaking, do not have large endowments, why not take your talent to these HBCUs and kind of rebuild these historic institutions?
KELLY: I get why this could be great for historically black colleges and universities if black athletes took their talent and the money that follows them there. Why would this be good for the black athletes?
HILL: Right now, it wouldn't be because a lot of the HBCUs - they don't have the facilities, the infrastructure. And it is unfair because we're talking about 17-, 18-, 19-year-olds. So you would need a group - frankly, a whole exodus of athletes who would think a little forwardly in order for this to happen because clearly...
KELLY: Making a collective decision...
KELLY: Let's all do this and take our collective bargaining power.
HILL: It can't be one or two because one or two is not enough to help to rebuild these schools, the communities around them. And I think what will be a trickle-down effect into strengthening the black middle class with a very solvent, steady, stable financial base, I think, is just a huge benefit all around.
KELLY: When it comes to black athletes, though - you quote one in your piece who sums up the counterargument to yours pretty eloquently. This is Kayvon Thibodeaux, the top high school football prospect. He visited Florida A&M, and it was a huge stir that he had visited a black college. But he ended up at University of Oregon. And the quote - I'll read it unless you want to - he said, nobody wants to eat McDonald's when you can get filet mignon.
HILL: As I said, like, I don't think there's any question that there is a difference between a University of Oregon and a FAMU - facilities, just everything. I mean...
KELLY: The exposure - I'm thinking in terms of somebody who might be good enough to go pro.
HILL: The exposure would be the least of - to me, the least of the issues because there are players in the NFL and NBA who went to black colleges right now, and they were found. And I think that's part of the mentality that some of these young athletes have. They think the schools make them. Teams want to get better, and they want to go where the talent is. And it's the same with television networks. They follow where the audience goes and where the talent is. And so from an exposure standpoint, I don't think there's any question that the exposure will certainly follow them.
KELLY: Is there any precedent for what you're advocating? Has there ever been a group of rising college athletes who've banded together and made a collective decision in this way?
HILL: Not to go to a black college, but probably one of the more famous examples is the Fab Five. Jalen Rose and Chris Webber - you know, both are from Detroit. They got to know the other members of the Fab Five - you know, Juwan Howard, Ray Jackson, Jimmy King. And five freshmen went to University of Michigan and changed college basketball. And I don't see why that couldn't happen for an HBCU. So while - you know, I know I was speaking from a standpoint of, like, utter utopia 'cause it's a little bit more...
HILL: ...More challenging than that. But I do think it's possible.
KELLY: Your piece has kicked up a big fuss on Twitter and beyond. I've seen some critics saying this amounts to an argument for voluntary segregation. What do you say to that?
HILL: I think those people don't know very much about HBCUs because HBCUs have never been segregated - OK? - ever. There are white...
KELLY: White people could always go there. Yeah.
HILL: White people could always go there. There are white people that go there right now - a lot. There are white quarterbacks and white football players and basketball players playing for HBCUs. What I'm saying is moving the base of power to an HBCU. And what's interesting, especially because so many conservatives have had something to say and have called me a segregationist, even a racist, is that - now, correct me if I'm wrong - but conservatives, especially when it comes to talking about the black community, they're always telling black people to pull themselves up by the bootstraps - right? - always saying that. So I actually suggest an idea that basically is rooted in that. And suddenly, I'm a racist. I find that to be highly ironic.
KELLY: That's Jemele Hill, staff writer at The Atlantic.
Thanks so much for talking to us.
HILL: Thank you guys for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.