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No HBCU players selected in 2021 NFL draft

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The 2021 NFL draft came and went without a single player from a historically Black college or university (HBCU) being selected. Jackson State University coach and NFL Hall of Famer Deion Sanders vented his frustrations, sending a message on Instagram saying players from HBCU programs were “NEGLECTED AND REJECTED.”

This year’s draft was like none other with COVID-19 restrictions limiting the 2021 draft class. Around mid-April only 657 players were signed to the NFL. To put that into perspective, that’s less than half the number of players at the same time last year.

HBCU programs have been partnering with the NFL since the 1940s, but out of the 259 athletes who signed none were associated with a historically Black college and university. There were opportunities for NFL teams to see players from HBCU programs. Over 40 players from HBCU programs attended a combine in March.

According to the Washington Post, 29 players from HBCU programs started during last year’s NFL season. So, was there an overlook? It’s no secret that the NFL hires the best talent, but would the league look different if more top athletes attended historically Black colleges before turning pro? Nearly 80% of the players in the NFL are Black; however, a majority of those athletes opt to attend bigger and more resource-based institutions. That hasn’t always been the case. Before schools began to integrate only 60 years ago, African American college football was just as, if not more, competitive as any conference in the nation. Strategically, players want to go to schools where they believe they will have the most success, but if more top athletes chose to attend HBCUs it would completely change the landscape of college football and the NFL.

There are 33 players, or 11%, from HBCUs currently in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Between 1968 and 1976, about 50 to 70 draft picks came from HBCUs. Every year since then that number has dropped. To lure players toward the HBCU collegiate football life, NFL legends Eddie George and Deion Sanders are taking on big jobs as head coaches for Jackson State University and Tennessee State University.

Jerry Rice, who is widely regarded as one of the greatest, if not the greatest football player in NFL history, attended Mississippi Valley State, a small school in the heart of Itta Bena, Mississippi, with a current student population of less than 3,000. Former Defensive Rookie of the Year and all-pro Darius Leonard of the Indianapolis Colts attended South Carolina State.

The reason for the small draft class pool is simple: COVID. Because so many schools either didn’t play or had haphazard schedules, the NCAA allowed all seniors who normally would’ve entered the draft to return for one more year, which dwindled the following draft class to about one-third of what it normally looks like. In addition, small programs across the country had to cancel pro days due to a decrease in travel from NFL scouts. These reasons forced the NFL to invest in only big-name universities like the University of Alabama, where 10 players were drafted in this year’s class.

While this 2021 class wasn’t the best year for HBCU athletes, there’s hope the number of recruits increases in the coming years. Next season the program will host an All-Star game to give teams the opportunity to see roughly 100 prospects.

Devon Davis is a public policy specialist at Bose Public Affairs Group. Contact him at ddavis@bosepublicaffairs.com.

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