“For Me, That Future is Jackson State University”: Travis Hunter’s National Signing Ceremony as a Symbol of Critical Pedagogy for Black Youth Resistance

Travis D. Boyce
San Jose State University
San Jose State University, San Jose, California, USA
Travis.Boyce@sjsu.edu

Michelle Tran
Purdue University
West Lafayette, Indiana, USA
Tran193@purdue.edu

Keywords:  Travis Hunter, National Signing Day, Black youth, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, college football, Jackson State University

National Signing Day is an annual, early-February event for high school athletes (notably football players) to sign their letters of intent to continue their athletic careers at the collegiate level. In his February 3, 2016 piece in Slate Magazine, Josh Levin described National Signing Day as “convoluted and ridiculous” (Levin, 2016). Theatrics and spectacles are commonly associated with these signing ceremonies.

In 1989, with members of the media in attendance, Derric Evans of Dallas Carter High School (in Dallas, Texas) memorably signed his national letter of intent to the University of Tennessee while relaxing in a hot tub (Hootnick, 2017). By 2016, Signing Day stunts included Deontay Anderson committing to the University of Mississippi football program by skydiving (Bleacher Report, 2016).

The Commitment: Watch 4-Star Safety Deontay Anderson’s Skydiving Reveal

Even for college-bound athletes who have elected for a tamer signing ceremony venue (in their high school auditorium, coach’s office, or gymnasium), National Signing Day has become an event for which they bring props to the stage as they announce their decision. For example in 2011, Isaiah Crowell brought out a bulldog puppy on stage when he announced his signing with the University of Georgia Bulldogs (Anderson, 2011).

Then there’s the popular hat ceremony.

National Signing Day 2018: Where top college football recruits landed | ESPN

The signees place multiple caps (which denote the schools they are considering) on the table prior to announcing which school they will attend. This ceremony keeps the audience (but most importantly college football programs and its coaches) in suspense, thus creating a spectacle. For a highly recruited or five-star rated athlete who may have unlimited options in terms of choice of school, the decision of where to go to school creates an immediate impact on how college football programs proceed in the recruiting and signing period. For example, if a college football program is unsuccessful in signing its top-recruited quarterback, the coach will have to resort to a contingency plan and pursue a second choice or even third choice [likely a lower-rated recruit or junior college (JUCO) player].

Signing ceremonies have often resulted in surprises. Perhaps, for instance, an athlete had verbally committed to play for Florida State University for the past year. But on signing day, the player went with the University of Florida (see Dante Fowler).

These performances can be more than what they seem when top Black athletes are part of the equation. Usually athletes choose a school that is part of the “Power 5.” Doing so would allow the player to take part in elite college football conferences, such as the Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big 12, Southeastern, and PAC 12. Power 5 schools are well funded, mostly White, and keep up social traditions that maintain the racial status quo (especially at those schools in the South) (Hill, 2019; Martin, 1999).

But recently some highly rated athletes have considered signing with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) instead of a Power 5 school (Mollo, 2021). This change is because of the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter Movement, particularly the racial reckoning during the summer of 2020. These events led to a national discourse surrounding the importance of HBCUs and spurred a remarkable signing decision. For example professional basketball player Makur Maker who was a 5-star recruit as a high school senior chose Howard University over UCLA, the University of Memphis, and the University of Kentucky; all top collegiate basketball programs. His selection drew considerable national attention, but the story quickly faded from view after an injury cut his debut season short.

On December 15, 2021, the first day of the early signing period, Travis Hunter, a five-star football recruit, had all eyes on him during his signing ceremony. He’d received offers from several football programs in the Power 5. In the following video clip, Hunter can be seen standing in front of an audience at his high school, Collins Hill, with three caps (Auburn University, the University of Georgia, and Florida State University).

Travis Hunter, top recruit in the nation, selects Jackson State University for college

Those schools had been the finalists in his mind. Back in March 2020, Hunter had previously committed to the Florida State University Seminoles. Even so, he now theatrically tossed the three caps one by one into the audience, showing he had decided against all three. Hunter then opened his jacket, revealing the I Believe Jackson State University (JSU) logo t-shirt. Someone in the audience tossed him a Jackson State cap, which he put on. In this manner, Hunter shocked the college football (and U.S. higher education) world with his decision to attend Jackson State (Mississippi) University, a public Historically Black College with then an athletics budget of under $8 million. In comparison, the school he’d rejected, Florida State University, had an athletics department with a $129 million dollar operating budget in the past academic year (Murschel, 2022; Williams, 2021b).

Without question, in selecting JSU, Hunter had chosen to play for his idol, Deion “Prime Time” Sanders. Sanders was a National Football League Hall of Famer, a Super Bowl Champion, a collegiate All-American at Florida State University, a former Major League Baseball player, and most recently Jackson State University’s football head coach (2020-22). The chance to learn from Sanders appeared to have made Hunter’s decision easy (Taylor, 2022).

When a top recruit chooses an HBCU, that’s a political choice in addition to a sports choice. The caps and shirt on his signing day were not just props meant to amuse the viewers. In this case, Hunter, an African-American five-star athlete, had boldly decided to play for an HBCU over a predominately White institution (PWI). Certainly he knew the difference in the teams’ budgets. He knew he had the capitalistic “value” to sign at a PWI. Yet in the one moment he had to claim agency, he identified with an HBCU. His choice symbolizes the ideals of critical pedagogy for Black youth resistance. Professor Tyson E.J. Marash (2016), in his article titled Critical Pedagogy for Black Youth Resistance, explains, “Critical pedagogy requires that we recognize the intimate connection and interplay between racism and the hegemony of US capitalism and imperialism” (p. 15). Since the desegregation of collegiate athletics, Black athletes have been recruited to PWIs solely for their athletic abilities. While PWIs benefited financially, HBCUs subsequently experienced a talent drain and a decline in their athletic programs (Hill, 2019). Seen in this light, Hunter’s decision to sign with JSU represents one Black youth’s protest against exploitation of the Black body (in this case, an athlete) by U.S. capitalism (the business of college football).

Following his signing ceremony, Hunter (2021) posted a tweet that aligns with the ideals of critical pedagogy for Black youth resistance: “…For Me, That Future is Jackson State University.” Hunter (2021) further noted that he felt “called to” Jackson State University because he is looking toward the future. He discussed the rich history of HBCU sports by referencing NFL Hall of Famers Jerry Rice (Mississippi Valley State University) and Walter Payton (Jackson State). Hunter wanted to be a part of this rich legacy and preserve a tradition of football players representing an HBCU.

Since the election of Donald Trump in 2016, enrollments at HBCUs have increased. In a qualitative study, Williams et al. (2021a) found that Black students were influenced by the current political climate during their college selection process. Students cited concern for their safety and well being. Because of this concern, HBCUs experienced a surge in student applications and enrollment. However, the racial reckoning of the summer of 2020 (after the May 25th murder of George Floyd) became a watershed moment in terms of the renewed national focus on HBCUs. Corporate and financial institutions felt compelled to support HBCUs. There has been an overall public awareness of the historic mission of HBCUs. Most importantly, it was young Black people who mainstreamed HBCUs through fashion, social media, and “protesting with their feet” by enrolling in HBCUs. Highly recruited high school athletes began seeing HBCUs as a good place to continue their athletic career.

Gracing the cover of the July 2022 issue of Sports Illustrated is Travis Hunter (as a member of Jackson State University) along with his teammate (the coach’s son, Shedeur Sanders) and his coach (Deion Sanders) (Sports Illustrated, 2022).

Deion Sanders Shows Jackson State Players Their SI Cover!

That cover is a first for an HBCU athlete and/or team in almost thirty years. Such a visible public reception is the manifestation of critical pedagogy for Black Youth Resistance, particularly in the lens of collegiate sports. As Shedeur Sanders notes (in reference to his teammate Hunter), “We came to Jackson State for the same reason: to make change” (Taylor, 2022). Coach Deion Sanders discussed in a March 1, 2022 podcast interview with ESPN analyst Jay Williams that what is happening at Jackson State is “a movement, not a moment.” Sanders’s success at Jackson State University is a blueprint to help grow other HBCU football programs into national prominence (Williams, 2022). Will this movement be a springboard for top-rated HBCU players to enter the NFL after college?

On December 3, 2022, Deion Sanders was officially named the head coach at the University of Colorado. Travis Hunter and Shedeur Sanders left Jackson State University for Colorado, joining coach Sanders. As for Hunter, he showed that Historically Black Colleges and Universities can be a place where 5-star recruits can compete and draw a national audience. Surely Hunter did not disappoint in his very notable Signing Day.

References 

Anderson, H. (2011, Feb. 2). Isaiah Crowell signs with Georgia, wins Signing Day by bringing puppy onstage. SBNation. https://www.sbnation.com/ncaa-football/2011/2/2/1970636/isaiah-crowell-signs-georgia-bulldogs-puppy

Arnett, A. A. (2022, April 25). Sport scholars debate the “price” of athletic success at HBCUs. Diverse: Issues In Higher Education. https://www.diverseeducation.com/sports/article/15291112/sport-scholars-debate-the-price-of-athletic-success-at-hbcus

Bleacher Report [@BleacherReport]. (2016, Feb. 3). 4-star safety Deontay Anderson skydives his way to a commitment [Tweet]. Twitter.https://twitter.com/BleacherReport/status/694892561249402880?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E694892561249402880%7Ctwgr%5E%7Ctwcon%5Es1_&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.si.com%2Fextra-mustard%2F2016%2F02%2F03%2Fdeontay-anderson-commitment-ole-miss-skydiving-video

Fowler, D. [@dantefowler] (2016, February 3). Happy National Signing Day ballers!! [Tweet]. Twitter. https://twitter.com/dantefowler/status/694908226723278849

Hill, J. (2019, Oct.). HBCUs need elite athletes to leave White colleges. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/10/black-athletes-should-leave-white-colleges/596629/

Hootnick, A. (2017). What Carter Lost. [DVD]. ESPN Films.

Hunter, T. [@TravisHunterJr] (2021, Dec. 15). It’s OFFICIAL #jsu #gotigers @jacksonstatefb [Tweet]. Twitter. https://twitter.com/TravisHunterJr/status/1471166038834356237

Levin, J. (2016, Feb. 3). National Signing Day, explained: A guide to the convoluted and ridiculous rituals of college football’s signing day. Slate Magazine. https://slate.com/culture/2016/02/the-convoluted-ridiculous-rituals-of-national-signing-day.html

Marash, T. E. J. (2016). Critical pedagogy for Black Youth Resistance. Black History Bulletin, 79(1), 14–23.http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5323/blachistbull.79.1.0014

Martin, C. H. (1999). The rise and fall of Jim Crow in southern college sports: The case of the Atlantic Coast Conference. The North Carolina Historical Review, 76(3), 253–284. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23522657

Mollo, E. (2021, March 2). HBCUs become more appealing for high-profile athletes: Historically Black colleges should be a top destination, experts say. ABC News. https://abcnews.go.com/Sports/hbcus-appealing-high-profile-athletes/story?id=76210979

Murschel, M. (2022, Feb. 22). FSU athletics report $7 million gain during pandemic partly due to cutbacks. Orlando Sentinel. https://www.orlandosentinel.com/sports/florida-state-seminoles/os-sp-fsu-7-million-net-pandemic-20220213-iuzrpu6ycffn3hqypcdypo26t4-story.html

Sports Illustrated [@SInow] (2022, June 9). Deion Sanders was featured on the cover of  SI many times during his legendary career, but this one is special. Read the story on how Coach Prime and Jackson State are fueling the rise of HBCU football: si.com/coachprime [Tweet] Twitter. https://twitter.com/sinow/status/1534932081184104451

Taylor, J. J. (2022). Deion Sanders: The Hall of Famer uprooted his life to revive a moribund small school and now he’s ushering in a new era for all HBCUs. Sports Illustrated Magazine.

White, D. E. (2010). From desegregation to integration: Race, football, and “Dixie” at the University of Florida. The Florida Historical Quarterly, 88(4), 469–496. http://www.jstor.org/stable/29765122

Williams, J. (Host). (2022, March 1). NFL legend Deion Sanders on HBCUs and raising the next generation of Black athletes. [Audio podcast episode]. In The Limits with Jay Williams. National Public Radio. https://www.npr.org/2022/03/01/1083678379/nfl-legend-deion-sanders-on-hbcus-and-raising-the-next-generation-of-black-athle

Williams, J. L., Palmer, R. T., & Jones, B. J. (2021a). “Where I can breathe”: Examining the impact of the current racial climate on Black students’ choice to attend Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Journal of Black Studies, 52(8), 795–819. https://doi.org/10.1177/00219347211039833

Williams, R. (2021b, Dec. 15). Travis Hunter, Coach Prime, and HBCU football’s biggest moment. Boardroom TV. https://boardroom.tv/travis-hunter-deion-sanders-jackson-state/#:~:text=The%20FCS%20school’s%202021%20football,247Sports’%20final%202021%20recruiting%20class

Author Bios

Travis D. Boyce is an associate professor and chair of the Department of African American Studies at San Jose State University. His research interests are popular culture and 20th-century African American life. He is the co-editor of Historicizing Fear: Ignorance, Vilification, and Othering, published (in 2020) by the University Press of Colorado. He is the author of the forthcoming book Steady and Measured: Benner C. Turner, An African American College President in the Jim Crow South (University of South Carolina Press).

Michelle Tran is a doctoral student in American Studies at Purdue University. Tran studied sociology and African American Studies at San Jose State University and then pursued her MA in Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University. Her research interests are Ethnic Studies, race and sports, African American history, and online discourse (cyberspace, culture, and community).

 

 Published online February 2023

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