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On Sunday morning I woke up hyped. It’s not many days in your life that you get to experience modern day black history. As a lover and supporter of HBCU Athletics, I was ready to see NFL Hall-Of-Famer Deion Sanders coach his first game with the Jackson State University Tigers football team. This was a moment that we’d waited on for months. We talked about every angle of the Deion Sanders hiring since it was announced. Now, we had the opportunity to see if Coach Prime had what it took to notch wins on a collegiate level.
Deion Sanders is brash, in-your-face and larger than life. He puts on a show no matter what he does. I was expecting him to be the HBCU media darling. I was expecting to see him on every black syndicated morning radio show in the country talking about this historic moment. I expected ESPN to give him some TV time; maybe a one-on-one interview with Winston-Salem State University Alumnus Stephen A. Smith. I at least thought I’d be able to see his game on TV and not buried on the ESPN app. My expectations weren’t even close to being met.
Still, I maintained my level of excitement. HBCU Football was back and we were starting with Coach Prime! Surely, things were going to go right no matter what. Then, the game turned on. The camera quality was poor. The audio of the announcers wasn’t crispy. The graphics didn’t have that sizzle and flare that they normally do during other ESPN College Football games. And, through it all, it didn’t even feel like I was watching an HBCU game. I couldn’t feel the atmosphere of Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium. The Sonic Boom of the South was often inaudible and the audio dropped at points.
I then started to get frustrated. Deion Sanders is an NFL Hall-Of-Famer coaching his first game during Black History Month yet he gets public access level streaming from the Worldwide Leader In Sports? All these corporate entities purport to be supportive of HBCUs and our culture but give us the scaps at the bottom of the bag. The commentary team was lackluster, consistently saying inaccurate statements such as Jackson State being in “Jacksonville, Florida” instead of the literal city and state they were broadcasting from. As I heard them repeatedly say this I thought to myself, “Where’s Tiffany Greene & Jay Walker?”
Yes! ESPN literally has an HBCU team that normally covers these games for the SWAC. Tiffany Green, a FAMU Alum, serves as the play-by-play commentator and Jay Walker, legendary Howard University QB, breaks down the game with style and flare. Why weren’t they put on this broadcast? They could’ve done it from home like how they’re doing the other commentators! I started to feel disrespected. I knew that Jackson State University deserved more than this. Then, I thought about the history of ESPN and got even more upset.
ESPN has had the tradition of always trying to get the first story on great people. Remember back in 2003 when they showcased a high-school LeBron James on the main ESPN channel? They deployed ESPN camera crews to St. Vincent St. Mary’s High School and Bill Walton, who was their go to commentator for everything basketball in the early 2000’s. Not to mention that he’s a NBA Champion and Hall-Of-Famer. You pulled out all the stops for an 18-year-old that looked to be transcended great but easily could’ve flamed out at the professional level?
Sure, you could say that that case is different because most of us knew the upside of LeBron’s potential. But, the point still stands. ESPN has placed high school games on their main networks with at the very least mid-tier quality. They jump on the possibility of a high school player being great and attempt to rush and cover it. Deion Sanders already is great. He’s literally in the NFL Hall-Of-Fame. Why would you give him less than what he deserves.
And don’t get me started on the ratings! We are approaching a year in the COVID-19 pandemic! The numbers for the game would’ve been through the roof. Let’s not act like Jackson State University didn’t lead the FCS in attendance in 2019 pre-COVID. They were bringing in 33,000+ people across a slate of five home games! You’re telling me that 2,000+ people were let in the stadium on Sunday but the other 31,000 wouldn’t have watched at home on ESPN? Yet, we hear reports about sliding ratings amongst all sports broadcasted by ESPN. What if they tried to capture this moment with quality.
We can get deeper too. Let’s take Jackson State out the picture. In 2019, we saw Florida A&M University take on Southern University for the first time in years. It was a showdown that we were all hyped for around the nation. Everybody couldn’t get to Tallahassee though. So, we hopped on the ESPN+ stream of the game. According to an article sourced by HBCU Gameday, the stream was viewed 15,000+ times and 19,000+ people were in Bragg Memorial Stadium. I think those are impressive numbers, especially with the fact that ESPN didn’t promote the game on its main slate of television, radio or social channels.
How can we prove our worth if we’re never given a chance. The SWAC and their commissioner Dr. Charles McClelland have done an amazing job creating a tangible product that can compete with other conferences in the NCAA. They’re locked into a contract with ESPN as it is and Dr. McClelland wants to see more SWAC games featured on the main ESPN channel. Why didn’t this happen on Sunday? ESPN committed a major disservice to all of us, especially on Black History Month. And, above all else, this underscores the need for black owned and operated media. Because if they won’t give us a platform to shine, we have to build our own. That’s the story of HBCUs after all.