The spotlight shines brightly on NFL players, allowing them to shed light on the causes they care about most.
Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner spent his 2019 season spotlighting inspirational institutions often overlooked by collegiate athletes: Historically Black Colleges and Universities. The competitive All-Pro defender found a novel way to get the word about the schools he admires by wearing a different HBCU sweatshirt in the locker room after each road game.
During a July 29 virtual press conference, Wagner rounded off his fashionable 2019 statement, sporting a black HBCU Foundation sweatshirt. The 2019 Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee donated his award money to the foundation, an organization which “provides scholarships to students attending historically black colleges and universities.” Wagner spoke on the importance of supporting HBCUs and encouraging Black student athletes to attend them.
"I think is very important, because there's a history there," Wagner said. "There used to be a lot of black athletes that chose those schools and, you know, we kind of went away from that. So to see that come full circle and guys starting to consider it. I think it's amazing.”
Many of the nation’s HBCUs are located in the Northeast and the South rather than the West. In California, there is one HBCU: the Charles Drew University of Medicine and Science in Los Angeles.
Wagner didn’t learn about the HBCU experience until he was in college, which is why he preaches the importance of visibility in order to reach potentially interested athletes who aren’t aware of all of their options.
“For myself, when I was younger - I'm from California - there wasn't too many HBCUs out there that was visible, and so I didn't really learn about it until I actually got to Utah State,” Wagner said.
“A lot of it is just visibility, a lot of it is just knowledge, understanding that it's out there, understanding this option. So I'm happy to see the love that HBCUs have gotten these last few months."
Discussing whether or not to attend an HBCU is a popular topic in the Black community, as HBCUs offer a unique opportunity to study alongside people of the same background. Moreover, Black students can celebrate their heritage while discovering their identities and histories during formative collegiate years. Originally from Nigeria, Howard graduate Lysious Ogolo describes how he learned the importance of HBCUs in the American educational landscape.
“In Nigeria we knew of Princeton, we knew Harvard, we knew all the Ivy League schools. We didn’t know any HBCUs. I didn’t even know what a historically black college was... I started taking some African American history classes, and I learned that we are part of this rich heritage. I found out that after slavery ended, we needed a place for people of color to come and learn. You start to understand why HBCUs are important. What they mean not just for black people, but for the history of the United States.”
Morgan State graduate Isaiah George reiterated the historical, cultural, and educational importance of HBCUs in response to an assumption that they are primarily party schools.
“These schools are safe havens for black students to express themselves, honor their culture and heritage, and grow in a country that denied them that right because of prejudice and racism.”
The National Trust for Historic Preservation agrees that HBCUs are an integral part of our nation’s fabric, naming George’s Morgan State a national treasure.
While Ogolo and George explored Black American history during undergrad, Wagner experienced a “culture shock” by moving from Southern California to Logan, Utah.
The Utah State graduate detailed his experience at a predominantly white state school for The Athletic last December.
“If you saw a Black person walking on the street in Utah, you just automatically thought that was your friend,” Wagner joked. “Wasn’t many. It was just different.”
The racial demographics of schools like Utah State are drastically different from the NFL. In 2017, Black students comprised less than one percent of the student population. However, Utah State is a Division I football school in the Mountain West Conference that has produced 15 current NFL players, including Packers’ 2020 first-rounder Jordan Love.
In the past, the nation’s top Black athletes have often been successfully recruited by well-funded state schools, but advocates like Wagner are pushing recruits to reconsider traditional preferences. The trend is beginning to shift in HBCU favor: top-tier basketball recruits Makur Maker and Nate Tabor have committed to HBCUs, while No. 1 football recruit Korey Foreman included Howard on his final list of potential schools.
The main argument for Black athletes to attend large, primarily white state schools is that there’s more money, exposure, and opportunity playing for a big-name school - players may feel they have a better shot at their NFL dreams if they’re in the national spotlight. The I AM ATHLETE podcast recently hosted a spirited debate about the topic, featuring retired NFL players Channing Crowder, Brandon Marshall, Reggie Wayne, and Fred Taylor.
While it’s true that HBCUs produce smaller NFL numbers (Morgan State has only two current NFL players), they’ve also produced some of football’s greatest legends. 30 out of the 318 enshrined players in Canton are HBCU graduates, including linebacker and Morgan State alum Willie Lanier.
Although Black students are a minority at schools like Wagner’s Utah State, Black players comprise around 70 percent of the NFL - but there is still a lack of understanding of Black experiences in the football world. When Black players kneeled in solidarity with Kaepernick’s peaceful protest, white politicians - and fellow NFL players - misunderstood the intended message. Perhaps this is part of the reason Wagner is so adamant about endorsing HBCUs.
In June, Wagner spoke about how an education in Black history can help Americans better understand themselves and each other.
"I challenge you guys to educate yourselves on what it’s like to be black in America," he said. "I definitely feel like we have to educate ourselves as well because there’s a lot of things that they’re not teaching us in school, we’re not learning in schools and we need to figure out why that is. Everybody’s supposed to be getting the same education but we all know that’s not the case, and we need to fix that."
The COVID-19 quarantine poses a challenge for NFL players hoping to do charitable outreach - but for the young athletes who look up to greats like Wagner, a sweatshirt logo is enough to make a difference. With him and other notable football figures making their voices heard through a variety of ways, seeing if more top recruits choose to go the HBCU route in the future bears watching.