HBCU shine from Stephen A., Shannon and Prime is cool, but we want that stolen money
Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.
The 2023 HBCU Week national conference took place in September, near Washington National Airport (never Reagan National), with the theme of “Raising the Bar: Forging Excellence Through Innovation and Leadership.” Activities included an address from U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, a college fair, step show and the Virginia State University gospel choir.
But unofficially — at least in sports — HBCU Week was Monday and Tuesday.
That’s when media stars Stephen A. Smith and Shannon Sharpe returned to their respective alma maters, Winston-Salem State and Savannah State, for live broadcasts of their popular TV show “First Take.” ESPN viewers were treated to a slice of HBCU culture in a packed gymnasium, with the band, cheerleaders, dancers, homecoming court and the whole vibe.
You can’t raise the bar in sports media much higher than the ESPN co-hosts who returned to where they began — Smith starting with his school’s newspaper and Sharpe with his school’s football team — and are now celebrities atop their industry. Ever since the HBCU alums joined forces in September, they’ve crushed Skip Bayless on “Undisputed,” Sharpe’s former show. “First Take” immediately drew record ratings while the rival show’s viewership has cratered without “Uncle Shannon.”
Much like Deion Sanders did in three seasons at Jackson State, Smith and Sharpe this week put HBCUs in the national spotlight typically reserved for primarily white institutions. The lovefest at WSSU included gifts and tributes for Smith and a closing line from Sharpe, who had to yell over the music:
“HBCUs! Stephen A. and myself are going to bring attention to get you the love and respect you deserve!”
Except we can’t make anyone love and respect us. It has to come from inside them.
As an alum of (you know) Howard University, I don’t spend a lotta time thinking about folks who look down on HBCUs. Either they get it or they don’t. If they believe our schools are inferior based on resources, facilities and the low percentage of white people on campus, we can’t change that.
Besides, we’re too busy making it do what it do. That’s been true from 1854 — when Lincoln University in Pennsylvania became the first degree-granting HBCU — all the way through today, getting shine from Coach Prime’s tenure and “First Take” visits. Our reality isn’t altered just because a crowd stops through and most dip out. The challenges and opportunities remain; we don’t need random passersby harping on the former and disparaging the latter.
“The energy that’s within HBCUs, people in that space understand it,” says Dr. J. Kenyatta Cavil, a professor at Texas Southern who studies HBCU sports and culture. “They already knew it and loved it. It’s like an antique car that has great value.”
But increased attention comes with unconstructive comments and unsolicited advice from the onlookers, largely due to their ignorance. They haven’t devoted themselves to banging out dents and restoring the interior. They haven’t wiped ‘er down and worked under the hood.
Yet they wanna enumerate our ride’s shortcomings? Go suck a rock.
“It’s like anything with your family,” Cavil says. “There are criticisms we can talk about, or within the neighborhood and groups based on ethnicity, race, fraternity or other subsets. But outside of that, how dare you come in and talk about us when you haven’t been amongst us. Don’t come over here and opine and put your own thought process on this without truly engaging in this struggle.”
The struggle is real. So is Sharpe’s message to students at each stop: “You can get anywhere from here.”
HBCU alums in media, sports, business, education, government and every other field can corroborate Sharpe’s testimony. There’s no cap on our possibilities compared to fam who go the PWI way. We love our choice, enjoy unlimited options and understand why folks of all stripes crave our flavor. Self-esteem isn’t an issue.
“First Take” doesn’t talk about HBCUs nearly as much with Sanders in Colorado, which is actually understandable for a nationally televised mainstream morning show. There’s not much space for other topics when the Dallas Cowboys/NFL and Lakers/LeBron/NBA consume googobs of time, leaving PWI athletics to fight among niche sports for the scraps.
Though exposure is great, this is our own thing. We savor it and don’t mind sharing. We hope spectators enjoy the show, too.
But more than paying attention, pay us what’s owed.
In September, as Coach Prime generated $280 million for Colorado, the Biden administration urged 16 governors to address their states’ criminal underfunding of land-grant HBCUs. Brother Michael Harriot laid out the white heist in detail ($13,055,622,325 in the past 35 years alone), explaining the damage to HBCUs and Black folks in general.
With those funds, HBCUs could better fulfill their social mission and compete in the sports industrial complex — in that order. I’m not holding my breath, though. We’re not gonna rewind time and attract all the top recruits like we did before integration, before PWIs spent billions on facilities and assorted amenities to lure athletic talent, primarily Black. We have more pressing needs.
That’s the message to newbies, allies, sympathizers, meddlers and casual observers who have stumbled upon HBCUs with help from Smith, Sharpe and Sanders. But it’s also a message to self when looking at collegiate sports conglomerates like Ohio State, Texas and Alabama.
“We can’t say HBCUs are special, and then want to mimic the framework of what HBCUs are not,” Cavil says. “By that I mean historically white colleges and universities.”
We ain’t them and don’t wanna be them.
Just give us our money and we’ll take it from there.
Deron Snyder, from Brooklyn, is an award-winning columnist who lives near D.C. and pledged Alpha at HU-You Know! He’s reaching high, lying low, moving on, pushing off, keeping up, and throwing down. Got it? Get more at blackdoorventures.com/deron.
– is FREE on your TV via Apple TV, Amazon Fire, Roku and Android TV. Also, please download theGrio mobile apps today!