One Yard

The Power of Heralded Black Athletes Going to HBCUs

On Friday morning, July 3, five-star senior Makur Maker made an announcement on Twitter that shook up the college sports landscape. The highly touted, nimble, 6 feet 11 basketball talent who had drawn interest from such major powerhouses as Duke, Memphis and UCLA, committed to historically Black college Howard University.

It was a shocking move for sure. Maker, who was born in Kenya, grew up in Australia and finished his high school playing career at Hillcrest Prep Academy in Arizona, became the highest ranked recruit to commit to an HBCU in more than a decade.

It's a beautiful thing that Black athletes are considering and thinking about being educated on Black campuses by Black people.

“I was the 1st to announce my visit to Howard & others started to dream 'what if,” Maker posted.“I need to make the HBCU movement real so that others will follow.”

Mission accomplished. The move by Maker, the no. 16 player in ESPN’s rankings for the Class of 2020, has sparked conversation in the sports world and amongst the general public, with an increasing number of Blue Chip Black athletes expressing interest in enrolling in storied HBCU institutions over predominantly white institutions (PWIs). One of those talents is Mikey Williams, hailing from San Diego, California.

A basketball phenom in his own right who is currently ranked number 3 in the 2023 class, Williams tweeted out last June, “Going to an HBCU wouldn't be too bad.” The statement instantly sparked interest from a slew of HBCUs across the country — and elevated the idea of the mammoth impact other five-star Black athletes attending Black colleges could have both socially and economically on Black schools.

When asked by One Yard what inspired the tweet, Williams was upfront about his intentions. "I like to be different,” he says. “And then also, being an African-American, going to school with other African-American people, I think that's dope. I think that as a community, that's coming together and supporting each other.”

It was Mikey’s mom, Charisse Williams, who first introduced HBCU’s rich legacy to her son at a young age. She played softball at Hampton University. Athletics and HBCUs are in the Williams’ blood. "I started that conversation early with my kids [about HBCUs],” Charisse tells One Yard. “So it is on their radar, it is in the back of their mind. I do think it makes a difference as far as the awareness of the HBCUs and that they offer just as much as some of the PWIs.”

Yet Maker’s jump to HBCU glory and Williams expressing interest in making a similar bold statement isn’t happening in a vacuum. Like everyone else, they’ve witnessed the tumultuous year of civil unrest and protests against the mistreatment and unarmed killings of Black people by police. Black Lives Matter has now become a rallying cry for professional Black athletes.

Global icon LeBron James and the NBA have led all major sports leagues from the NFL to the MLB in declaring change. There’s been an outpouring of support for Black businesses, creatives, and institutions, including historically Black colleges and universities, amid the fight for equality.

So it should come as no surprise that Black athletes are realizing their tremendous power and influence, even in amateur sports. And it’s just not high profile basketball players making the HBCU push. On September 21, Noah Bodden, the no. 1-rated quarterback in New York, announced his commitment to Grambling State University, an impactful coup for the Division I school.

"It's a beautiful thing that Black athletes are considering and thinking about being educated on Black campuses by Black people," echoes Kenny Blakeney, head coach of Howard Bisons men’s basketball team. "With Black athletes now starting to look at HBCUs, that money [and] that success can now return to Black universities, and be shared by students that need those resources."

Blakeney has already seen the impact of Maker’s commitment to Howard pay off. “There's been an interest in national sports networks wanting to broadcast our games,” he glows. “We've had more sponsorships, interest, loans and are now more engaged in Howard athletics. I think it's amazing to see the power of one man's voice at a university, but we hope this isn't the last that we can see a five-star young man attend our university.”

Embedded content: https://twitter.com/MakurMaker/status/1278956245966188544

And when the soon-to-be Bison becomes the first HBCU product selected in the NBA draft since Kyle O’Quinn (Norfolk State) in 2012, Maker will have an array of Black college greats who have gone on to become professional sports legends as role models — from MLB Hall of Famer Andre Dawson (FAMU) to late Heisman finalist and 3-time NFL Pro Bowl quarterback Steve McNair (Alcorn State).

“There are incredibly, incredibly successful athletes that went to HBCUs,” says Taylor Rooks, sports journalist at Bleacher Report and host of the digital series Take It There With Taylor Rooks. “Jerry Rice went to an HBCU, Walter Payton went to an HBCU, Michael Strahan, Sam Jones, Althea Gibson. So, I want the younger kids to understand the history of the HBCUs, to have pride around HBCUs, and understand that it is not just an afterthought.”

Of course, it’s deeper than the fame and accolades. HBCUs provide something much more profound. "The experience you get as far as student life — professors can identify with you, and you can identify with them because they come from similar backgrounds or experiences [and have] experienced different racial injustices,” adds Charisse Williams. “It's easier to relate or have an open dialogue, and the professors are willing to work with you more because everybody understands one another.” HBCUs for the win!

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