Travis Hunter and The Move Toward Black Power

Bakari K. Lumumba, a Pan-Africanist, father, and founder of lumumbaspeaks.com, a Black empowerment initiative, is currently a doctoral candidate in Ohio State University’s higher education student affairs program. In this commentary, he shows how a young Black man’s decision to choose to play football at a historically Black university instead of in a Power 5 conference program can be a watershed moment in the empowerment of Black America.

“When you control a man’s thinking, you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him to stand here or go yonder. He will find his “proper place” and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary.”
– Carter G. Woodson,  The Miseducation of the Negro (1933)

College football is considered an American tradition, in which autumn Saturday afternoons from San Diego to Boston follow a similar pattern. Parents teach their children school spirit in anxious anticipation of their alma mater’s big rivalry game, alumni and students eat and drink to their hearts’ delight while tailgating, and collegiate athletes who are primarily Black give their all on the gridiron in the pursuit of victory.

These traditions on their face are seemingly innocuous; however, behind this veil of school spirit and wholesome American fun is a more significant issue. This issue is the siphoning of Black male athletic talent from Black communities via promises of stardom, grandeur, television exposure, and national championships. These promises, while lofty, often come true, as Black men dominate the NFL draft and receive various all-American and all-Conference honors. Moreover, Black male collegiate athletes make up the bulk of the revenue-generating collegiate sports (football and basketball); however, they have been denied their financial piece of the pie. Yes, the new NIL legislation has played a role in student-athletes benefiting from their name, image, and likeness. Nevertheless, it pales compared to the amount historically White institutions (HWIs) have made by capitalizing on the historical and novel push for integration over half a century ago during the Civil Rights Movement.

I argue that HWI’s have “capitalized” on the demands of the Civil Rights Movement not due to gaining a conscience, a belief in racial equality and equal access to higher education, or the elite White male-dominated academe having a “come to Jesus moment.” The basis for integrating collegiate athletics, in my opinion, was due to White interest convergence, rooted in compelling Black athletes to compete at various HWIs to overcome athletic “setbacks” on the hardwood and gridiron.

These “setbacks,” which are now part of historical lore, began with Texas Western College’s (now known as the University of Texas at El Paso) all-Black starting lineup, a first in NCAA history, winning the 1966 NCAA championship against Adolph Rupp’s all-White Kentucky team. As well as the racially integrated University of Southern California football team’s 42-21 victory over the all-White University of Alabama on September 12, 1970, at Legion Field in Birmingham, Alabama.

These setbacks led to the wholesale recruitment of Black athletes at HWIs. This led to a rise in Black student enrollment at HWIs, leading many in the Civil Rights community to conclude that African Americans had attained “equal access” to higher education in America. However, this integration has led to a dubious “activism of self-defeat,” in which access to White institutions and education, while novel and respected, has coincided with White access, use, and control of Black athletic prowess — resulting in HWIs raking in millions, sometimes even billions of dollars in annual revenue, due to their control of the athletic labor of Black athletes. This revenue leads to the hiring of prestigious faculty, newer campus buildings, increased research capacity and prestige, and larger endowments for said institutions. Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), sadly, have been unable to keep pace in the arms race for Black athletic talent, leading many to struggle to stay afloat due to state and federal funding cuts.

Furthermore, the historical and contemporary issue of access and control of Black male athletic talent and the wealth it generates is why Travis Hunter (the consensus number one high school football player in the country) has set off a firestorm of controversy and debate amongst recruiting analysts, sports anchors, and college football prognosticators due to his audacious “flip” from Florida State University to historically Black Jackson State University in Mississippi.

Central to this cacophony of cynicism regarding Hunter’s decision is the belief echoed and opined by a litany of White commentators that his decision does not make football sense; citing the dearth of “elite talent” he will face in practice and on the competitive field during his tenure as an HBCU athlete. I argue that such an argument is quixotic, historically inaccurate, and intellectually disingenuous. As a bevy of NFL all-time greats (Jerry Rice, Walter Payton, Michael Strahan, Ed “Too Tall” Jones, Steve McNair, and Shannon Sharpe, to name a few) have excelled and dominated in the NFL while competing against a dearth of “elite talent” during their tenures as HBCU athletes.

I believe that the impetus of the calumnies against Hunter and his decision is rooted in what retired New York Times columnist William C. Rhoden referred to in his groundbreaking book Forty Million Dollars Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete (Crown, 2006) as the “conveyor belt” of college athletics. The mission of this “belt’ according to Rhoden, in part, is to “eliminate racial consciousness from Black athletes while imparting and inculcating an ideology of know-nothingism,” as the modus operandi for Black athletes. This ideology of know-nothingism unwittingly feeds the avaricious appetite of White institutional and corporate control of the financial spoils gained from the raw material of Black athletic talent.

Moreover, what is most telling is the Belt’s role of labeling Black athletes who show any semblance of racial consciousness as “troublemakers.” History shows this to be accurate, as Black athletes, including but not limited to Jack Johnson, Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith, John Carlos, Curt Flood, Arthur Ashe, Dick Allen, Craig Hodges, and Colin Kaepernick, all have felt the insidious sting and whitelash of Eurocentric American media, the besiegement of Madison Avenue and the asphyxiating tentacles of the White American sports industry, because of their uncompromising stance for Black equity and power. This response shows that anti-Blackness is deeply rooted in American athletics, highlighting the racialized, and mollifying nature of sports that began during the Holocaust of Enslavement.

I implore Black parents, coaches, and youth leagues to join Travis Hunter in restoring Black male athletic talent to its rightful place – Black institutions – in order to combat the conveyor belt system. To do so, the Black community must create a culture of racial consciousness that is consistently rooted in the ethics, values, and ethos of Black Power (e.g., Black community control of Black resources and institutions). In which the Black collective ends its infructuous singular approach to Black issues rooted in an activist/warrior paradigm to a builder/creator framework that advocates Black people having something to fight for rather than against. If not, Black athletes’ talent will continue to be outsourced as a form of cheap labor continuing a cycle of White use and abuse that began when the first Africans arrived in America over 400 years ago.

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  1. Kevin A. Rolle, Ph.D. says:

    Well written and well spoken. Outstanding observations, you are correct we must return to our communicates and provide this information. There is a major misconception that HBCU’s don’t provide a path to pro sports, which is not the case. Great research.

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