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Why Makur Maker’s Decision to Play at Howard Could Be a Game Changer for HBCUs

In early July five-star high school basketball player Makur Maker announced on Twitter his plans to play at Howard University.

Maker told The Undefeated the response to his announcement has been overwhelmingly positive, save for the expected few who questioned why he would choose Howard over UCLA, Memphis, or Kentucky—TV-friendly schools with better facilities and nationally acclaimed teams.

African American athlete Shooting a Basketball

Here’s how the blue-chip recruit explained his decision to play Howard men’s basketball, in his own words:

“I dare to be different, and I always consider myself to be a leader. I want to change the current culture and climate that has kept five-star athletes like myself from viewing HBCUs as a viable choice.”

Despite having offers from top sports schools, Maker’s high school basketball coach pulled him aside during the 2017-2018 season and urged him to consider Howard.

Then Maker researched the school’s history and discovered “a strong list of academics, politicians, singers, actors, civil rights activists and persons known around the world that all came from the same school. A Black school. All incredibly talented people who showed what you could do in life if you went to Howard.”

That piqued his interest, so he planned a visit during the school’s homecoming (the annual tradition of welcoming back former students and alumni to celebrate the institution). He was impressed. Walking around campus, he said he felt like he was “with family.”

Given Maker’s experience at Howard—the feeling of being at ease among peers, a sentiment echoed by other Black student-athletes—why do so few Black high school athletes choose HBCUs?

It’s all about money and exposure.

Black colleges and universities are historically underfunded, which puts them at an automatic disadvantage when it comes to attracting top Black talent. HBCUs don’t get first dibs on rising stars like their Division I peers, and they don’t get the same shares of NCAA revenue from televised games, participation in March Madness, ticket sales, apparel sales, and all the rest.

The result is that predominantly white institutions (like UCLA) pull in hundreds of millions—or billions—in revenues, in large part because of their uncompensated Black athletes.

It wasn’t always this way. Much like Black-owned sections were once a fixture of Black neighborhoods, top Black athletes once regularly attended HBCUs. In fact, Jim Crow segregation meant HBCUs were at one time pretty much the only choice for Black students.

Basketball going through the hoop at a sports arena

Then sports became big business.

Big sports schools relentlessly recruited players away from HBCUs so that, today, most blue-chip recruits don’t even consider HBCUs. And even though their chances of making it big are slim, the allure of state-of-the-art facilities and playing in the championships in front of millions on TV is a huge pull.

Which is why it’s such a big deal that Maker has decided to attend Howard.

Black students have higher graduation rates at HBCUs, probably in part because they feel more at home at these schools. HBCUs play an outsize role in creating members of the Black professional class. These schools have produced 80 percent of the Black judges, 50 percent of the Black lawyers, 50 percent of the Black doctors, 40 percent of the Black engineers, 40 percent of the Black members of Congress, and 13 percent of the Black CEOs in America today.

And in a country with such a huge racial wealth gap, growing the Black middle class is critical for building generational wealth. White families today have 10 times the wealth of Black families, and white college graduates have 7 times more wealth than Black college graduates. The story around debt isn’t similar. Black students not only have higher rates of student debt, they have more of it than their white counterparts.

The benefits of top Black student-athletes attending HBCUs extend beyond school revenues. When HBCUs are doing well, they also help the Black neighborhoods that surround them flourish.

african basketball player with a ball in his arm

The time is ripe for change

Maker’s decision to play for Howard comes during a time of national awakening about police brutality, institutional racism, and the scourge of white supremacy—the likes of which we haven’t seen since the Civil Rights era.

We’ve seen a major push across the country to divest in hyper-militarized police departments and reinvest in communities. To revive healthcare, housing, and education. To rebuild the whole system.

Black student athletes have an opportunity in this moment to support HBCUs. This has never been more important, as already struggling black colleges and universities fight to stay afloat during the coronavirus pandemic.

Will one player’s decision really do anything? Probably not. But if this moment of racial reckoning has taught us anything, it’s that there can be a sudden “switch.” A collective moment when something that once seemed impossible becomes possible.

More and more Black student-athletes are realizing the power they wield. Last year the NCAA announced it would amend its bylaws to allow student-athletes to profit off their name, image, and likeness.

If other elite athletes following in Maker’s footsteps and play for HBCUs, we could see a major shift in culture around athletics that strengthens Black colleges and universities—and, by extension, Black communities.

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