Travis Hunter, Jackson State and Where HBCU Athletics Are Today: A Conversation With The Atlantic’s Adam Harris

Harris' book, 'The State Must Provide', examines the history of segregation in American higher education.

Every week in her Good Form column, Natalie Weiner explores the ways in which the sports world’s structural inequalities and injustices illuminate those outside it — and the ways in which they’re inextricably connected. You can read previous columns here.

When the No. 1 overall high school football recruit in the country, Georgia cornerback Travis Hunter, committed to play at Jackson State University about a month ago, there was a palpable feeling of triumph. He shocked the college football community by electing to play for the Mississippi HBCU, where Hall of Famer Deion Sanders now coaches, instead of the wealthy, predominantly white institutions that have long attracted the best athletic talent because of their abundant resources (offered both over and under the table). 

This week, he was joined at Jackson State by wide receiver Kevin Coleman, a top-50 recruit — according to CBS Sports, they are some of “the highest-rated players to commit to an HBCU program in the modern era.”

It’s a full circle moment that both speaks to a current trend, and demands historical context. Historically black colleges and universities long had a monopoly on Black college athletic talent because American  colleges and their athletic programs were either explicitly or implicitly segregated. What happened when they were finally integrated — a process that took into the early 1970s to fully realize — was that the business of college sports exploded into what it is today, a multibillion-dollar industry that relies on a predominantly Black and still unpaid pool of athlete labor. 

The racist inequality in higher education was presented through a new, inevitable-seeming lens: the only way many Black Americans had access to these ostensibly public institutions was through athletic scholarships, which were ultimately transactional more than they were educational. “Discrimination is a contortionist, bending and twisting until it fits within the confines of the system it is given,” as Adam Harris writes in his book The State Must Provide

Today, awareness of this ongoing exploitation has become more widespread, and athletes are beginning to get some leverage via name, image and likeness rights (which, as we have often discussed in this column, are the bare minimum). That agency is converging with something of a renaissance for HBCUs, which have garnered some attention and long overdue philanthropic funds in the wake of the 2020 protests against police brutality and entrenched, systemic racism more broadly. Talented Black athletes are seeing a real path to the pros that might not require quite so much compromise, and that has the potential to turn the entire world of college athletics upside down.

Harris, staff writer at The Atlantic, might be among the best qualified people to explore this shift. His book The State Must Provide explains the history of segregated higher education in America, and he spoke with me about how that intersects with college athletics — essentially, how we got to the place where a school like Alabama has so many more resources to offer athletes (and students) than its HBCU equivalents, and why it’s significant that Black athletes may be starting to see things differently.

What was your initial reaction to hearing the Travis Hunter news?

I didn’t find out through social media. I actually found out from my dad, who went to Alabama State. He was like, “Got another one.” Over the previous couple of weeks, there had been some announcements from top junior college recruits and high school recruits — four-star players and such — going to HBCUs. So my initial reaction was like, “Wow, it’s actually happening,” meaning that we’re seeing this move away from players assuming that their future professional athletic careers are so tied to the certain subset of institutions that are on TV every week. 

People were regularly saying, “He’s not going to get the same exposure as if he had gone to LSU or Alabama or Florida if he goes to Jackson State” — but Jackson State’s going to have eight games or something like that on ESPN next year. It was a culmination, in some ways, of the dynamics around HBCU sports shifting.

How would you explain the history of HBCU sports as they relate to segregation and integration of higher education (a challenge in just a few words, I know)?

HBCUs really had a monopoly on Black college athletes before integration, and of course, that’s no secret. Integration didn’t just happen, like a switch was flipped and all Black students went to predominantly white institutions — but once that happened, college sports became more of a money-making enterprise. 

Teams wanted to win and coaches wanted to win, and they started recruiting more of these top athletes — more Black athletes — and HBCUs didn’t have the same ability to offer the accoutrements that come with being a college athlete at those kinds of institutions. Whether that was housing, or the dining halls, or the additional resources for tutors and things like that, HBCUs, thanks to more than a century of discrimination, didn’t have that financial base that a lot of these predominantly white institutions that became the Power Five schools had.

Up until now, these HBCU institutions have been fighting for resources on the academic side and the athletic right as well. That’s why you saw so many of these big money games, where a place like Alabama State or Alabama A&M would say,”OK, Auburn, you’re going to give us a million dollars to come and play you, and maybe we get a touchdown. But we’re going to walk away with a million dollars to go into our athletic budget for the next year.” The schools felt forced into those arrangements because of the financial situation.

With things shifting with name, image and likeness and with the more general understanding of the way college athletes are exploited financially, there are some opportunities in this moment to move the paradigm away from, “This is a big money school, and this is where this kid has to go to get exposure.” They don’t have to worry about that exposure piece of it as much. And once the financial piece for the student athlete matches the exposure piece, I think that’s when you end up getting to a place where you’ll see more of the Travis Hunter situations happening.

In the book, you mentioned that you eventually played basketball at Alabama A&M after being recruited by several predominantly white institutions. Did you have any sense of the exploitative dynamic at that point? 

When athletes take their official visits, they only get shown a small slice of what campus life is like. They typically will only hang out with their future teammates, and the team is maybe 40%, or 50%, or 60% Black. I thought, “Oh, this is like, more [Black students] than I thought were going to be here.” So that’s your impression of the campus. But then you move there, and you’re like, “Oh, wait, this was actually all of the people who look like me on this campus.” If it’s a campus with 20,000 people, maybe there are 1,000 Black students. I don’t know if I really knew about that dynamic as much as I do now, and I don’t know that a lot of student-athletes do.

Yeah, the numbers you lay out in your book are really striking. Living in North Texas, the information about the Oklahoma schools — that there are more Black students total at Langston University, an 1,900-student HBCU, than at the University of Oklahoma, which has over 22,000 students — was particularly arresting.

One stat that I didn’t include is that there are almost more Black students at Langston than at the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State combined. But that’s the state of a lot of Power 5 schools. Auburn has fewer Black students, total, than it did in 2002. These institutions and universities have known that they have issues with diversity, and issues with enrolling Black and brown students, for a long time. But they just have not acted to do anything about it outside of recruiting student athletes.

In that context, it’s obvious why the early signs of this shift in attention and influence towards HBCUs feel like such a big win. How do you, as someone who covers higher education, start to square that with everything we know about the exploitation that’s come to characterize, especially, college football and men’s basketball?

It’s very difficult to square the two. I have a lot of friends who are Jackson State alums, who are just over the moon at this point. My parents were actually here for the Magic City Classic, we had the game on and I’m just like, going crazy, because Alabama A&M was winning, and so thinking about how embedded college sports are into alumni culture is a very difficult thing to square with knowing how exploited college athletes are. You could lose your scholarship at any time if you don’t keep up with what is your first job, and that is being an athlete on the team. 

But as these athletes are able to make money off their name, image and likeness — which I’ve also had issues with, because it’s sort of absolving the institutions of this financial debt that they owe to the students — but as people grapple with the fact of unfairness in that system, and we move towards a system of compensation for labor that has been financially lucrative for a lot of institutions, I think it will become easier.

How do you see athletics in general fitting into the bigger question of your book, which is of course about equality of access to higher education?

I think that athletics play a role in it. Of course, there’s places like Paul Quinn [College] where the president got rid of its football team in order to really build up the campus and deal with the struggling finances of the institution. Football wasn’t making any money, it was just something that was a part of the culture. If the athletic programs can become self-sustaining entities of their own, which not a lot of college athletic programs in general are, I think that would be a real bright spot. 

But if you’re thinking about the exploitative nature of college sports, the fact that in these very white spaces, you have these islands of black athletes to make a lot of money for the institutions that the institutions are not paying, it doesn’t quite square with the higher ideals that these institutions of higher learning are professing to have — equality and justice and particularly for American higher education institutions, the idea of “a more perfect union” and what we’re doing to get there. 

HBCUs are experiencing a renaissance of exposure that I don’t think has a historical parallel.  Most people have known about HBCUs, but the amount of attention that the institutions are getting at this moment, with 2020, of course, being that historic year for philanthropic giving, is unprecedented. I think that if that renaissance of attention is backed up by a renaissance of finances, where there are atonements made for the historical deficiencies and discrimination, the American higher education system — in both athletics and academics — will be moving towards the more equitable future that it professes to.