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Is Deion Sanders a ‘sellout?’ Experts say it’s complicated

The Pro Football Hall of Famer’s loyalty and intentions were called into question when he traded in an HBCU for a better-funded, predominantly white institution.
Deion Sanders during a press conference in Boulder, Colo., on Dec. 4, 2022.
Deion Sanders at a news conference in Boulder, Colo., on Sunday. Helen H. Richardson / Denver Post via Getty Images

Deion Sanders’ decision to leave Jackson State University, a historically Black university in Mississippi, to take over as head football coach at the predominantly white University of Colorado in Boulder has been the talk of the sports world. 

Upon joining Jackson State in 2020, Sanders, 55, a Pro Football Hall of Famer and two-time Super Bowl winner, essentially became a champion of football at historically Black colleges and universities. He promoted the virtues of the schools, lured top recruits away from predominantly white institutions, sparked a surge of donations and sponsorships to the underfunded Jackson State, increased national exposure for HBCUs and put up his own money to renovate the school’s Walter Payton Center.

He declared that God led him to Jackson State to uplift HBCUs. With all of his efforts, fans and HBCU advocates are upset that he is leaving the university after three seasons for a $5 million annual payday from Colorado.  

“He sold a dream and then walked out on the dream. People have the right to be critical of that,” ESPN’s Bomani Jones told CNN. Sports fans shared similar sentiments on social media, with one person tweeting, “Deion was preaching elevating HBCU programs & looks like he was just using JSU as a launching pad for his coaching career, which is fine, but don’t go around acting like it was for altruistic reasons.” 

Another said: “This guy literally made himself the face of HBCU sports, acted as its lead ambassador, shamed those who didn’t want to include him (be they questioned his motives) … only for him to flip so soon.”

The debate about Sanders’ leaving Jackson State has centered on whether he should be considered a “sellout” for having left an HBCU football program that he made successful for a struggling program at a better-funded, predominantly white institute. Experts say the answer isn’t so simple. 

Sanders has a 27-5 coaching record at Jackson State, including a 12-0 season this year and two consecutive Southwestern Athletic Conference titles. The Colorado Buffaloes haven’t had a winning season since 2006 and haven’t won a bowl game since 2004.

Sanders will owe Jackson State around $300,000 in a buyout for the 2020 contract, according to USA Today. And Colorado reportedly offered Sanders a starting salary of more than $5 million a year, plus incentives. 

Although Sanders’ departure is a major loss for Jackson State, some have said his joining a school in one of college football’s Power Five conferences highlights the upward mobility Black coaches have long fought for. Rob Parker, a co-host of the Fox Sports radio show “The Odd Couple With Chris Broussard & Rob Parker,” said that while he understands the criticism, he believes Sanders is simply “evolving as a coach.”

“This is the circumstance of college football. This scenario has happened a million times. This is not a Deion Sanders thing,” Parker said. “Because he was able to move mountains and make changes and gave people a sense of pride for HBCUs, now they feel like he owes them for the rest of his life. And I don’t think that’s fair.” 

HBCU Sports senior editor Kendrick Marshall, who was among the first to announce Colorado’s offer to Sanders last month, acknowledged that Sanders never said he’d stay at Jackson State for long. Sanders made it clear in an October interview with CBS’ “60 Minutes” that he would “entertain” an offer from a Power Five school. That, Marshall said, doesn’t mean Sanders’ HBCU rhetoric was disingenuous. 

“I do think he cared about the well-being of Jackson State football players. I do believe he cared about the well-being of the university as a whole. I do think, to some degree, that he really, truly cared about how Black colleges were perceived in the mainstream,” Marshall said, adding that he believes Sanders accomplished all he said he wanted to do at Jackson State, from winning games and attracting donations to generating media exposure. And he made himself more appealing to other schools seeking head coaches. “It was a win-win for both parties,” Marshall said. 

Some critics have said the outrage isn’t so much about Sanders’ going to a predominantly white institution but about his doing so after having cemented himself as a staunch supporter of HBCUs. An air of racial solidarity and loyalty has underscored Sanders’ time at Jackson State. His decision to move on and break his four-year contract has even been described as “abandonment” by online critics. Sanders has also said he’s taking his son, Shedeur, Jackson State’s quarterback, to Colorado with him.  

In an opinion piece, Deadspin sportswriter Carron J. Phillips said the move only proves that Sanders never really cared about HBCUs at all, especially because his rhetoric has centered on a bold mission: to “change lives, change the perspective of HBCU football,” he said in the “60 Minutes” interview. 

J. Kenyatta Cavil, a professor of health, kinesiology and sport studies specializing in HBCU sports at Texas Southern University, said focusing solely on the financial incentives and upward mobility of Sanders’ new job ignores the “social identity” of sports. As much as college football is a business and money driver, there is cultural significance to the programs that manifests itself in lifelong loyalty to teams to students’ college choices. 

“People are fighting two competing frameworks,” Cavil, a co-editor of “The Athletic Experience at Historically Black Colleges and Universities — Past, Present, and Persistence,” said of Black sports fans. “Even though they understand the capitalistic truisms of this society, people will also tell you they wanted Sanders to believe in something that would keep him at JSU despite the money.” 

Sanders also credited God for his latest career move when he told the team about his departure. He addressed claims that his decision was motivated solely by money, telling the players, “It’s not about a bag, but it is about an opportunity.” That posture may be helpful for Sanders, as Colorado’s athletic director, Rick George, admitted Sunday that the university doesn’t have the money to pay him — “but I know we’ll have it so I’m not worried about that piece,” he added, according to Sports Illustrated.

Experts like Cavil and Marshall agree that it’s unclear how Jackson State will fare on the field and in terms of donations and media attention without Sanders’ advocacy and star power. 

“Two major pieces of the championship team are going to be gone next year,” Marshall said, referring to Shedeur and Travis Hunter, a former five-star cornerback who is rumored to have plans to follow the Sanderses to Colorado. “As far as what happens on the football field, they won’t be as good as they were the past couple of years with Deion Sanders not around. I think the buzz around the program will change, especially if they don’t hire a coach that has a similar stature as Deion Sanders.”