“Black college athletes: Listen to the NAACP.”

That’s the headline of a column in a recent issue of USA Today. It was written in the form of an open letter to Black athletes and extensively quoted NAACP Board director and Chairman Leon Russell and President and CEO Derrick Johnson in their letter to Charlie Baker, head of the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

Now since it appeared just a few days after I’d started developing the piece you’re now reading, of course it got my immediate attention and, like a mosquito in a nudist colony, it provided me with lots and lots of stuff to cherry pick from. 

Here’s the context.

Although none made the “sweet sixteen,” the University of Florida was one of a couple of teams competing in this year’s college basketball tournament. And like schools across the nation, it comes as no surprise that most of the star players on their basketball and football teams are African American. So square that fact with the state of Florida’s and university’s ban on DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) programs and recent action to shut down staffs designed to expand opportunities for people who have traditionally been denied and excluded for reasons of race and ethnicity…. primarily African American!

Let that percolate for a minute.

Immediately afterwards, former University of Florida and Dallas Cowboys legend Emmitt Smith blasted his alma mater in a statement in response to the university’s controversial firing of its entire Diversity, Equity and Inclusion department Friday. 

“I am utterly disgusted by UF’s decision and the precedent that it sets. Without the DEI department, the job falls to the Office of the Provost, who already has their hands full, to raise money for the university and continue to advance the academic studies and athletic programs. We cannot continue to believe and trust that a team of leaders all made up of the same background will make the right decision when it comes to equality and diversity. History has already proven that is not the case.”

Now if that’s not enough, like the late Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, Bear Bryant, the late University of Alabama football coach must be turning over in his grave with the news that Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey followed suit and signed a bill into law prohibiting diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives at public schools, universities and state agencies. Next came the state of Kentucky, one that employed the exact same logic and language in eliminating DEI. Now if this is just the start of a domino effect with other states acting similarly, and I suspect that it is, don’t be surprised. 

Posted Florida governor Ron DeSantis, whose attack on DEI was the cornerstone of his failed run for president, “DEI is toxic and has no place in our public universities. I’m glad that Florida was the first state to eliminate DEI and I hope more states will follow suit.” 

Well mission accomplished – or maybe started – Mr. DeSantis.

Not coincidently, Republicans seem to be reading from the same playbook by saying that the law aims to protect students from, hold your breath, “indoctrination” in the classroom. Conversely, Democrats criticized the law for its unclear language, including its ban on programs that teach “divisive concepts” surrounding race, gender and identity. 

Yes, “divisive concepts.” It’s called “putting lipstick on a pig,” readers. Rather than say what this really is – undeniable history – softening the language assuages embarrassment and guilt and protects little “Johnny” from discomfort in learning factual history. 

Towards the end, the NAACP leaders gave us a perfect example of the idiom, “cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face” with this:  

“The value of Black athletes is undeniable, especially when it comes to college sports. At the University of Florida and similar institutions, if football stadium emptied, if merchandise stopped selling, if TV deals fell through, the monetary loss would extend beyond athletics and other university programs.”

So talented Black athletes, yes, it’s wonderful getting all those tantalizing college offers and promises for stardom and a future in the pros. The lure of autograph seeking, adoring fans and a life of luxury in first class travel and chilling back in 5 Star hotels can be intoxicating. But never forget that life after time on the football fields and basketball courts is littered with former athletes like yourself, many of them strapped with broken bones, broken promises and a few lucky enough to hold college degrees.    

Concluded the letter in that USA Today column, “So, yes, dear Black athlete: congratulations to you. You’re a senior. You have a bright future. The colleges are knocking on your door. You just might want to listen to the NAACP. You’ve been warned.”   

I end with this message to Black athletes. Where you decide to take your God given talent is a once in a lifetime choice, even if that choice is in a state that has eliminated diversity programs and initiatives. I wish you the best. But at the same time don’t underestimate the immense power you have in taking a stand against cockamamie efforts to deny others less talented than you. 

Oh, by the way, in making your choice, don’t rule out one of the many excellent HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities). If you’re talented enough, the pro scouts will find you there.  

Believe me!

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.


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