Fine, go ahead. Write off Deion Sanders as an aberration, the latest fad or distraction from stuff that really matters in the world today.
And while you’re at it, for reasons of curiosity if nothing else, read about the “Deion effect” on the city of Boulder’s revenue bumps and sold-out football games at home and away. If you decide to replay recent games, good luck because your attention may get sidetracked by starstruck, sunglass wearing celebrities strutting up and down the sidelines in cowboy boots snapping selfies while chortling …. “Primetime,” “Primetime,” “Primetime!”
Love him or loath him, over a short period of time, Sanders has managed to jettison national disasters, an auto workers’ strike, political finger-pointing, congressional gridlock and the latest on an ex-president from front page news and dinnertime conversations.
But for the social history buff, the Deion Sanders story is more nuanced and much larger than sports. It transcends shrew marketing, revenue generation, leadership, fatherhood, expanding opportunities, ethnic pride and, yes, race in race obsessed America.
It’s rare a public figure who can blow off pejoratives – “polarizing,” “arrogant,” “braggadocious” (and unprintable ones) – with an aplomb backed up by an indisputable track record of accomplishments.
After Sanders’ Colorado Buffalos pulled off an incredible victory over state rival Colorado State, a thriller that spilled past midnight for East Coast viewers, Sanders appeared on an earlier taped “60 Minutes” program as if he and the program knew something we didn’t. And he didn’t disappoint.
“Who’s the best coach in college football today?” asked “60 Minutes” journalist Jon Wertheim.
“Let me see,” Sanders replied. “Let me see a mirror so I can look at it.”
“You feel that?” Wertheim said.
“What, you think I’m gonna sit up here and tell you somebody else?” Sanders replied with a laugh at the question. “You think that’s the way I operate? That somebody else got that on me?”
Like his performance as a Hall of Fame NFL cornerback, and perhaps in anticipation of outrage from his harshest critics, Deion stiff-armed his naysayers and pivoted to Alabama head coach Nick Saban, his costar on Aflac insurance commercials and the winner of the most in college football championships in history.
“I love, adore and respect every time I do a commercial with coach Saban,” said Deion. “It’s a gift. Just sitting in his presence, hearing him, and throwing something else out there so I can hear his viewpoint. Because he’s forgotten more things than I may ever accomplish. So, I’m a student looking up to this wonderful teacher saying, ‘Just – just – just throw me a crumb of what you know.'”
Now as much as millions love “Primetime,” there are as many who dislike him for reasons of their own, chief among them jealousy and anger about Black athletes they perceive as too rich, too grandiose, too tattooed, too jewelry flashing and, the absolute worst of transgressions, too unsatisfactorily humble.
Wrote William Spivey, “Deion Sanders is currently the most polarizing figure in the sport, and his current success infuriates his haters. Some begrudged him for coaching success at Jackson State where he parlayed his fame and personality into recruiting success, including the #1 prospect in the nation who was expected to sign at Florida State University.”
Even some rival coaches in the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) expressed jealousy, including Eddie Robinson, Jr. (no relation to Grambling’s late coach Eddie Robinson) at Alabama State, who said, “He ain’t SWAC; I’m SWAC!”
Without doubt, Deion Sanders has impacted the sport across the nation and turned the heads of talented recruits who are drawn into his allure and success. With no doubt, stadiums fill up and television revenues continue to grow. Plus, in addition to hyping Jackson State, Deion has talked up HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) and their historical significance. Though Sanders was a two sports star at Florida State, he earned his degree from Talladega College, an HBCU. He brought Jackson State to the pinnacle of success, and then he left, signing a deal to coach at Colorado, a team that finished 1–11 the year before. Some saw it as doing what college coaches do: taking better jobs for more money. Others saw it as a betrayal of Jackson State, the SWAC, HBCUs, and Black people in general.
Colorado’s next two opponents are #10 ranked Oregon and #5 ranked USC, both sporting the same 3–0 undefeated record as Colorado. Chances are, Colorado will have lost one or both of those games and, predicts William Spivey, the Deion-hating celebration will begin. “Deion’s already achieved unbelievable success, which has mostly silenced his critics, but don’t think they aren’t lying in the cut, waiting to pounce.”
Sorry Mr. Spivey but the pouncing is well underway. To wit is this caller to a local radio sports program the other day who asked: “This Deion Sanders hype is nothing but a sideshow. Is someone checking the academic transcripts of the players he’s bringing in through the transfer portal?” Yep, there we go folks.
In the end, the story behind the Deion Sanders’ story is one of his rise from the spectacular collapse of his Prime Prep Academy in Dallas to having reached the pinnacle in the world of college coaching aided by an opportunity provided by an HBCU school.
So, what do we now do with the Deion Sanders story? Leadership retreats, college Marketing classes, expanded talent searches and coaching clinics are good as any place to start.
In Part Two, we’ll share the passionate voices of sports loving folks who I asked to weigh in on the “Deion Effect” and their thoughts on its many messages to America.
Terry Howard is an award-winning trainer, writer, and storyteller. He is a contributing writer with the Chattanooga News Chronicle, The American Diversity Report, The Douglas County Sentinel, Blackmarket.com, co-founder of the “26 Tiny Paint Brushes” writers guild, recipient of the 2019 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Leadership Award, and third place winner of the 2022 Georgia Press Award.