Will HBCUs recruit more five-star athletes?

mj0007/iStockBy: ERIC MOLLO, ABC News

(NEW YORK) – Last summer, five-star high school basketball recruit Makur Maker was weighing offers from top college programs like Kentucky and UCLA. He turned down all of those offers, instead choosing to attend Howard University in Washington D.C.

Maker felt he could be successful at Howard even though the Bison won just four games the year prior and had not appeared in the NCAA Tournament since the early nineties. He said he wanted to attend a historically black college and encourage more top recruits to follow his lead and “make the HBCU movement real.”

Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have a deep, rich sports legacy, producing some of the America’s greatest athletes. Earl Monroe, Wilma Rudolph, Willie Lanier, and Michael Strahan are a handful of dozens of high-profile athletes to have attended historically black colleges.  

Strahan, a graduate of Texas Southern, and Lanier, of Morgan State University, talked about their experiences playing for historically black colleges on ABC’s “Perspective” podcast. Strahan said of his alma mater:

“To go to Texas Southern… it was perfect for me, the coaching was perfect for me, the teammates were perfect. The campus felt right. Knowing the history when you really looked into not just NFL players, but Hall of Fame NFL players, definitely made me realize that if I really wanted to be an NFL player that it could happen.”

Lanier tells “Perspective” he was ignored by predominantly white schools:

“It wasn’t about talent, it was about race. It was about a decision that it was not going to integrate… The institutions that were white were not recruiting black students or athletes.”

Despite its legacy, HBCUs have struggled to attract the top athletes in America. Makur is the only ESPN five-star player to ever commit to an HBCU.

Dr. Derrick E. White, professor of African-American studies at the University of Kentucky and author of the book Blood, Sweat, and Tears: Jake Gaither, Florida A&M, and the History of Black College Football, says the recruiting gap stems from decades of institutional inequality:

“The elite colleges in New England were the dominant programs… in the late 19th and early 20th century… and black colleges, many of whom their professors had attended these institutions, came to work at HBCUs and they started or developed their own program.”

White says it became harder to recruit the best athletes to attend Historically Black Colleges and Universities as the country began to integrate:

“What we see really in the late 60s and early 70s is desegregation of predominantly white institutions in the south and their athletic programs… black colleges are mostly small colleges and they just did not have the kinds of resources to compete for the very best players… After 1984, what we see is a massive explosion of new television dollars entering into college sports and those television dollars are being thrown at primarily white institutions… and that creates a huge kind of resource gap.”

Tyrone Wheatley is the head football coach at Morgan State University, an HBCU in Maryland. Once a star running back at the University of Michigan, he says kids could feel lost at big programs:

“At some of these institutions, you don’t have time to develop… My first semester at University of Michigan I didn’t like it. I hated it. You did feel like if I walked in with earrings in my ear with a high-top fade and all of the sudden, ‘Oh, look at you. You’re a hip-hop guy?’ No, I’m just me. And then you’re trying to search out the few black faces to hang out with. Now, you’re here [Morgan State] and this is the first time ever in my professional career that I’ve ever felt comfortable doing a situation like Black Lives Matter. This is the first time I don’t have to explain if I want to take a knee… or me supporting the young men who want to take a knee.”

Wheatley told “Perspective” that athletes who have ambitions of turning pro will get the necessary preparation at an HBCU:

“I have met some of the brightest and best coaches out there, from innovation to taking care of the young men that’s on their teams. At the end of the day, we have the essentials and everything you need to be successful at an HBCU.”

Dr. Billy Hawkins, University of Houston professor and author of The New Plantation: Black Athletes, College Sports, and Predominantly White Institutions, says following Maker’s decision and the racial climate over the past year, the next few years could become a time when more five-star recruits start to consider attending HBCUs:

“I think there is, unfortunately, some racial fear when you talk about the radicalization, or the weaponization, of white supremacy that we’ve seen recently. I think a lot of individuals in the black community are concerned about where we send our children and we want to make sure they’re going to safe places.”

What could make this moment a turning point? Strahan says athletes should consider the advice they receive before choosing their school:

“A lot of these athletes are told that if you don’t go to one of the larger schools, if you don’t have presence on TV every weekend, if you’re not playing for a national championship, then you’re not going to have a chance to make it to the next level in the NFL. That’s just not true. It’s just not true. It’s about the sports, but it’s also about the experience. One thing about sports is we’re not all going to make it. HBCUs provides you with what a great education, but they also provide you with a great opportunity to get to the pros if you give them a chance because when you’re talented, they’ll find you no matter where you are.”

Strahan adds that alumni giving time or money to schools can also influence an athlete’s decision. He says he has been involved with and given back to his alma mater, as has Willie Lanier. Lanier is currently working to install modern playing surfaces at several HBCU football fields through his program, The Honey Bear Project.

As for Makur Maker, Howard’s prized recruit appeared in just two games before getting injured, and the Bison had to cancel their season due to a coronavirus outbreak.

Maker could be one-and-done. He may enter the 2021 NBA draft and leave Howard University after just two games. However, his decision to go to Howard could inspire other top high school athletes to follow in his footsteps and believe that an HBCU may be the right step for them too.

Michael Strahan says:

“For him [Maker] to do that is something that is legendary in so many different ways. If he can come out of there and still be successful, and I hate saying go to the NBA because there’s more than one way to be successful, but for him to be successful, I think will add a lot of creed, a lot of firepower, to the argument that HBCUs can be great for young athletes.”

Listen to the report and the rest of “Perspective” here.Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.