7 thoughts about Deion ‘Coach Prime’ Sanders leaving Jackson State University and the million discussions it spawned

OPINION: When the popular personality and coach decided to leave the HBCU for the University of Colorado, he exposed significant cultural divisions in the Black community.

JACKSON, MISSISSIPPI - DECEMBER 03: Head coach Deion Sanders of the Jackson State Tigers looks on before the game against the Southern University Jaguars in the SWAC Championship at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium on December 03, 2022 in Jackson, Mississippi. (Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

I’m not sure if Deion “Coach Prime” Sanders realized the powder keg he is when he decided to make the leap from coaching at historically Black university Jackson State to coaching at historically white University of Colorado, but I’m sure he realized it pretty quickly. Sanders became an immediate talking point in all corners of the Black community. And it’s been quite fascinating. The opinions have ranged from appreciation for what he did while in Jackson, Mississippi, to believing that he’s a sellout for leaving the winning program he helped build to one of the worst in Division I football. You don’t have to dig too deep to glean the “white man’s ice is colder” undertones. Whatever his motivations (and whether or not they even matter) has got the timeline going crazy. I have my own thoughts about it all, and they probably fall a lot more in the middle than on either extreme. Let’s get into it.

1. I love HBCUs. I’ve never been offered nearly $30 million to leave one to go somewhere else. 

HBCUs have my heart. At the same time, no matter how much I might love the space I’m in, warts and all, if you put $29.5 million in front of my face to go do the same thing at another place, I’m going to assume I’d be very, very inclined to take that option, get that money, and if I felt the desire to go back, do that. It’s a substantial raise. Who doesn’t like a substantial raise? Not only that, but it’s a chance to go to a place with significantly better resources, etc. I don’t know. Most of us associate Deion with his famous song, “Must Be the Money,” so it should come as no surprise that that amount of money could be a motivator. I love Black culture; I’m sure I could go find it anywhere is all I’m saying, and I’d like to do it with some numbers in front of the zeroes in my bank account. I’m just saying, $29.5 milli is $29.5 milli. 

2. I think Deion can do whatever Deion wants to do.

Which is exactly what seems to have happened here. Whether Deion coached Jackson State’s team into the ground or into a winning team (as he did), he literally could go do whatever he wanted. I’m not sure he owes anybody but himself (and his family, I suppose) in that regard. 

With that being said….

3. Deion carried it like he was coming to change the culture of college football.

And he simply wasn’t there long enough to do that. He was there long enough to elevate…himself. In the three years he was at Jackson State, he did some significant things; you’ll see any number of people outlining EVERY SINGLE THING he has done or allegedly done, with or without sources. Seriously, by the time this convo dies down I’m prepared to hear that Deion was actually one of the founders of Jackson State University so he actually gave Black people more than anybody else ever in the state of Mississippi because he didn’t have to do that between sport seasons. I’m not ready to say that he sold, well, everybody a bill of goods yet, but he definitely leaned HEAVY into this idea that he was going to show the big boys what this Black college football thing was about and how HBCUs could compete with the right resources and circumstances (which, perhaps, could never truly exist in the first place). 

4. In that same vein, Deion is getting way too much credit for things that don’t really have anything to do with him.

Look, while Deion was there, did Jackson State become “elevated”? Sure, to some folks. Did HBCUs and HBCU football? To a lesser degree, yes but a lot of that has been years in the making; it didn’t start with Deion Sanders. Deion isn’t responsible for any TV deals. Deion didn’t fix the infrastructure of the city of Jackson, Mississippi. Deion did not increase applications and enrollments to HBCUs around the country. Did he bring national attention to the football team? Yes. Did ESPN’s “College GameDay” come to Jackson because of him? Yes. Will they ever come again? Probably not. Will Jackson State football be in a better place after he leaves than when he showed up? Eh. This is the point; Deion made a huge impact, much of that impact is likely to leave with him as he takes his coaches and star recruits with him. Jackson State will be fine; the spotlight that Deion brought won’t shine as bright. This is my point about him not being there long enough to institute a culture and system that could live without him. He did a lot of great things while he was there and gave of himself. Credit him for those things; let’s stop pretending like he changed the face of HBCUs and/or HBCU football. He didn’t. I think that point frustrated a lot of the folks in HBCU football; there has been a lot of pretending as if it only mattered because of Deion. It didn’t. 

5. I REALLY hate the conversations that imply that Jackson State should be happy he ever showed up in the first place.

We have this tendency in our community to over-appreciate celebrities and over-index their contributions and then pretend we should all be happy they ever gave of their time in the first place. Deion took a job. And did a good job of it. While he was there, he made things better for himself, for the team and for the school (per my understanding). He made choices and those choices put a national spotlight on (mostly him) and the football team. Now that he’s leaving, and especially to go to arguably a worse program, I find it difficult to be like, “yeah, we should just appreciate that he was ever there in the first place since he really didn’t have to be there in the first place.” It feels like a job undone, which I think is at the heart of most of this. I can’t appreciate you cleaning the bathtub if you didn’t clean the rest of the bathroom in the process just because you’re a celebrity. He’s a good coach, it seems; that doesn’t mean we should pretend like he’s above scrutiny. Just like him showing up made an impact, his leaving does, too; if we can talk about how great it is that he came then we can talk about how unfortunate it is when he leaves. 

6. I do not view Deion as a sellout.

I honestly don’t get this. I do think, however, that he talked too much about community and culture to leave so soon for a program that hasn’t been good in years. And I think he was selling dreams he never intended to see through. Or maybe he did, to a degree. I don’t know but it doesn’t feel like that. If you’d told me that deep down, he didn’t really want the job but he saw the opportunity and the community surrounded him and he leaned into that HEAVY and started talking about HBCUs and coming home and building OUR things, etc., I’d believe you. And he knows how to motivate and win — which he did. But it also looked like he had a foot out the door from the beginning, and I don’t think you can fully commit to community and culture if you are looking for a better opportunity from the beginning. It never felt like a money thing with him. So maybe it isn’t now. But if it isn’t that, then what is it? I don’t know; I don’t think it makes him a sellout, though. I think it just means he acts like every other football coach looking to get where they’re trying to go. Some coaches come for the legacy they’re building at a school, others come to coach football on their way. 

7. I am genuinely amazed at the varying opinions across the board. 

Look, I’m a believer in sharing opinions, and this situation, as it were, is the kind that drums them up. But whew, chile. Folks are hot. I thought the Kyrie Irving situation had the thinkpieces and opinions flying all over the place; who knew that Deion Sanders’ coaching location could literally engender so many takes about economics, culture, community, what we owe to the Black community, football, HBCUs, Black college football, etc. I couldn’t delve into all of them if I wanted to, but it’s quite illuminating to see so much variance in how we all view it. If you need any more proof that Black folks are not a monolith and DO contain multitudes, just Google that man and check out the thinkpieces, social media posts and television appearances from pundits.  

And if you still need more, make sure you check out my podcast, “Dear Culture” on Thursday (and every Thursday) as I’ll be assembling a panel of folks to talk about Deion Sanders’ version of “The Decision.” We also have a slew of episodes both about HBCUs and recorded at HBCUs. So check out “Dear Culture” on TheGrio Black Podcast Network.

Panama Jackson theGrio.com

Panama Jackson is a columnist at theGrio. He writes very Black things and drinks very brown liquors, and is pretty fly for a light guy. His biggest accomplishment to date coincides with his Blackest accomplishment to date in that he received a phone call from Oprah Winfrey after she read one of his pieces (biggest), but he didn’t answer the phone because the caller ID said “Unknown” (Blackest).

Make sure you check out the Dear Culture podcast every Thursday on theGrio’s Black Podcast Network, where I’ll be hosting some of the Blackest conversations known to humankind. You might not leave the convo with an afro, but you’ll definitely be looking for your Afro Sheen! Listen to Dear Culture on TheGrio’s app; download it here.