Perspective | Deion Sanders hasn’t revolutionized college football — but he could

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As Colorado prepared to kick off to Colorado State to start what became a thrilling double-overtime college football game watched by an ESPN late-night record 9.3 million viewers last weekend, there was a ping-pong game in the Colorado locker room, ostensibly overseen by its head coach, Deion Sanders. It featured legendary rapper Master P, founder of No Limit Records, against Offset, a member of the award-winning hip-hop group Migos.

Then Sanders had rapper Lil Wayne, whose gun conviction was pardoned by President Donald Trump, lead the Buffaloes onto Folsom Field in Boulder with a performance of Wayne’s classic “Ride for My N—-s (Sky is the Limit).” Boulder is home to a little more than 100,000 residents, 89 percent of whom are White, 1 percent of whom are Black.

Lil Wayne, Offset and Master P were later joined in cheering Sanders’s Buffaloes by Memphis rapper Key Glock, who owes his nom d’ rap to what the Violence Policy Center reported is a favorite handgun of mass shooters.

The scene in Boulder prompted Greg Carr — a Howard University professor of Afro-American studies and of law and one of the architects of the AP African American history course that reactionary Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis attacked as political, to denounce the public theater of Colorado football on social media as “PlantationCollegeAthletics” and “MinstrelsyOnSteroids.”

At least Sanders is cashing in on the Black culture he imported to Colorado, along with his indubitable inspirational talent and a coaching acumen that has the Buffaloes 3-0, ranked in the top 20 and the talk of all sports. The real revolution, though — the one that could change college football — hasn’t yet begun.

Sanders signed a contract for which he’ll pocket around $5.5 million per year. His commercial appeal is such that it was hard to remember a break in the game when he didn’t appear hawking some product. He’s selling mirrored sunglasses he sports on the sidelines and handed out to media members far too eager to suspend skepticism to be a party to the ride. And some of his players are profiting, too, particularly his star quarterback son, Shedeur, who is said to have the top name, image and likeness value in college football, valued by one estimate at $5.1 million.

What Sanders is doing with Black culture on the sports stage isn’t new, of course. But as Carr alluded, Sanders — under the guidance of a PR woman trained in the NFL’s marketing offices, Constance Schwartz-Morini, who has worked with everyone from Michael Strahan and Erin Andrews to Snoop Dogg and Wiz Khalifa — is daring a dangerous walk as a Black coach, between his use of Black culture and freedom to be who he might be.

As the British cultural critic Ellis Cashmore observed in his 1997 book “The Black Culture Industry”: “Inflating the significance of black culture may work against tangible enhancements to the lives of African Americans. The most significant value of black culture may be in providing whites with proof of the end of racism while keeping the racial hierarchy essentially intact.”

Jerry Brewer: Authentically himself, Deion Sanders reflects a truer image of college football

Indeed, in the vast wasteland for aspiring Black head coaches that is elite college football, Sanders being able to embody his sobriquet, Prime Time — “cool-cool ultracool was bop-cool/ice box cool so cool cold cool; his wine didn’t have to be cooled, him was air conditioned cool,” as poet Haki Madhubuti once rhymed — is exclusive. It’s due to his national persona built up since a sports information director at Florida State decided to pin him with the nickname Neon Deion. From that day, Sanders, now 56, figured out brilliantly and fearlessly a mutually exploitative relationship with the media.

Among Black coaches, only Sanders — insulated by the stardom of his celebrity — has such standing. After all, here’s a guy who once petulantly doused baseball-player-turned-announcer Tim McCarver with water after being hard-boiled by McCarver’s criticism. Yet Sanders suffered no long-term slight from either of the games he played so electrically.

I’ve not seen in my time around professional sports a greater athlete than Sanders, who appeared to end his nonpareil NFL career in Washington before coming back after a three-year hiatus to Baltimore. He folded his baseball career, where in 1992 he hit .304 for Atlanta and in 1997 stole 56 bases for Cincinnati.

I remember interviewing Sanders at Reds spring training camp about his less-than-ceremonial departure from the Dallas Cowboys. He asked me to come back after, as he put it, he messed around in the batting cage. I did. We talked. He was forthcoming, entertaining as ever. Then he departed for what he made his only known vice: fishing.

He got arrested once for trespassing on someone’s lake. When the cops called for him to come ashore, he refused. He was catching so many fish, he explained, that he decided to stay a little longer because doing so wasn’t going to lessen the penalty. Not unlike arguably the first mega-showman Black athlete, the boxer Jack Johnson, who gave a cop who pulled him over for speeding twice the fine because, Johnson said, he would be coming back just as fast.

But there is no valor in playing the exploitative game of college football — which is especially manipulative of Black male labor — like the exploiters before you, those for whom you may have played, or who were, or are, on the opposite side of the gridiron. For all that Sanders is exalting about young Black men in his tutelage, there were those he ran off the team upon arrival from his last stop, the historically Black university Jackson State, to make room for his imported crop.

So I can’t yet laud Sanders as some sort of transformative figure in college football who is, as the cliché goes, changing the narrative. He’s still making his bank, and plenty of it, like the peer group in which he’s ascended. Black male labor under him is still undercompensated and lacking the health care and insurance it not only deserves but needs, like star Travis Hunter, who was sidelined from a cheap shot in the Colorado State game that left him with a lacerated liver. Why can’t Hunter have the hospital, short-term disability or accident insurance from Aflac, for whom Sanders is an endorser? And Hunter is one of 60-some Black players on Sanders’s roster of 100 or so at a university where the undergraduate Black male population has been about 1 percent. Maybe in the future, Sanders can bring Colorado to value Black males in the classroom as much is it does in the athletic space.

Sanders hasn’t, as some have argued, changed the game. He hasn’t exposed the inequities that have been apparent for years even to the most casual viewers of college sports. He isn’t revolutionizing the most important part of the game, which is its structure.

Sanders, however, has the command to start exactly that: a real revolution in college sports. We know he is certainly bodacious enough to do so. And it’d be, after all, for the culture.

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