Sports | December 2nd, 2023
HBCU Football: Betting Against The Odds
By: Tatyanna McCray
In light of the upcoming Celebration Bowl Championship commencing plenty of celebration, many of the current players on Florida A&M University’s football team are receiving accolades for a 9-1 season and continuous growth in the college football ranks.
FAMU earned the most tallying marks this year in the postseason Southwestern Athletic Conference honors. As the end of the year approaches, commentary of the 2024 NFL draft nears, and players from Historically Black Colleges and Universities are making their presence known in the upcoming draft. However, in recent years, only a small number of players from HBCUs have been drafted into the NFL, causing upset among the HBCU collective.
Many believed unfair bias was involved, keeping players from HBCUs from succeeding in becoming a part of the major league despite their persistence in proving their athleticism.
Two of FAMU’s players, Isaiah Land and Xavier Smith, participated in outside competitions alongside top players from other Universities in hopes of attracting the right scout for a life-changing opportunity.
Isaiah Land participated in the Senior Bowl accompanied by only one other former HBCU peer, Aubrey Miller Jr., from Jackson State University. Land would also later participate in the 2023 NFL combine with University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff prospect Mark Evans ll.
Former Wide-Receiver Smith participated in the annual HBCU Combine, attracting lots of positive feedback, and took home the trophy for the HBCU Legacy Bowl offensive MVP. The exciting momentum continued to build for the prospective players as FAMUs football department hosted Pro Day at Bragg Stadium on March 30, featuring seven players: BJ Bohler, Kortney Cox, Chris Faddoul, Isaiah Land, Jose Romo-Martinez, Xavier Smith and Dariyon Weeden Sr.
Over 20 scouts arrived at Bragg Memorial Stadium eager to observe the Rattler’s athletic capabilities.
Each player completed a series of drills, testing their ability to show up on the field. Several photos, videos, and interviews took place, illuminating the event.
All seemed well and promising for prospective players on the highest of seven hills. Several sports analysts, sports enthusiasts, and major fans put together and discussed draft positions and rankings often, making predictions about where FAMU players would fall in the draft among other HBCU prospects.
Judgments were made based on the logistics of each player’s accomplishments throughout their previous seasons, how many major name awards they’d won and mere hope for a spectacular turnout during the annual three draft days. Families across the United States gathered together to watch as the draft unfolded, patiently waiting to hear their loved one’s name announced or film the famous calls made informing the player they’ve been drafted.
In contrast to the abundance of support and enthusiasm, most players from HBCUs were met with disappointment at the end of the three-day 2023 NFL draft.
Flag on the Play
Jackson State University’s Isaiah Bolden was the only player from an HBCU drafted into the 2023 NFL. Bolden was drafted during the seventh round, at pick #245 to the New England Patriots.
Numerous other HBCU players were also offered free-agent deals, granting an alleged second chance at earning a spot on the 53-man roster of one of the 32 NFL teams. After receiving their offers, HBCU prospects traveled near and far to attend mini-camps to become acquainted with the teams and prove their worth.
Final roster changes were made by the end of August, unveiling that several players HBCU communities and team fans were rooting for had been cut. After Land was released, sports outlets and social media reacted, sharing their dissatisfaction with the decision. In total, 21 players from HBCUs were offered free-agent contracts. However, when final cuts were made, only five players made the 53-man roster of the 32 NFL teams, with Land being one of them, going to the Indianapolis Colts.
Meanwhile, other former prospects were either released or signed to official practice squads including Smith.
Not only are HBCU players drafted at lower rates than players from other universities, but they are also, at times paid significantly less in comparison to their peers, which raises several questions, comments, and concerns understandably. So, what can be done to close the wide gap between players drafted from HBCUs in comparison to players drafted from predominantly white institutions?
Based on the numbers for the state of Florida alone, seven players were drafted between Florida State University and the University of Florida and none from any of the four HBCUs throughout the sunshine state. Although eventually two of FAMU’s players were selected as undrafted free agents, players from HBCUs all over are left wondering why there are so many roadblocks to achieving their goals.
Some of the most dominant, successful football players have been drafted from HBCUs, with more than a few being former Rattlers.
Over fifty players have been drafted out of FAMU with longstanding years in the NFL, including Gene Atkins, Clarence Childs, Greg Coleman, Henry Lawrence, and Herman Lee. The last year a player was drafted directly from FAMU was in 2013, with Brandon Hepburn being drafted to the Detroit Lions during the seventh round at pick #245.
Looking Toward the Future
In the upcoming year, prospective players, fans, and HBCUs hope to see more players drafted.
With just seven rounds to pick from hundreds of potential young men, the NFL has proven fiercely competitive yet still highly sought after. A record of continuous success, more positive attention is being shed upon sports at HBCUs, pushing dedicated players to the forefront.
Now, with more exposure, deals, and coverage, players from HBCUs are proving just how capable they are of being the ultimate athlete, qualified enough to accomplish great success.
Will next year’s draft have a better turnout for players from HBCUs? Or will more players, Universities, and fans have to continue speaking out to shed light on what is assumed to be unfair bias?
Either way, plenty remain hopeful, ready to embrace a positive change in the numbers of players drafted into the NFL from HBCUs.