There are good points in those arguments, but it can’t be forgotten that Sanders successfully turned around Jackson State football, returning the team to a form resembling its old glory and lifting, albeit briefly, the school’s public profile. He will be on the sidelines for one last game as his undefeated team plays another H.B.C.U., North Carolina Central, in Atlanta’s Celebration Bowl on Dec. 17.
It was always going to be close to impossible to keep Sanders at Jackson State if he consistently won. Everyone involved knew the deal, and Sanders talked openly about listening to other offers. This week, the school has thanked him profusely for his short-tenured run. Sanders is who he has always been: a sports mercenary with a carnival barker’s bearing, a roadside preacher’s panache and a talent for winning.
“Usually when God sends me to a place, he sends me to be a conduit of change,” he said during an introductory news conference/sermon.
I mourn for our H.B.C.U.s. They have been chronically underfunded since their inception in the late 1800s, deprived of proper resources from state legislatures and the federal government as more and more money pours into majority white schools. The project of higher education at Black colleges remains stuck in what feels like a long and unalterable grind for survival. The struggling sports teams at H.B.C.U.s are certainly part of that grind.
Among Black folks, many of us wanted to believe Sanders would stick around for longer than this, and now are left with a particularly painful hurt because the Black community so often finds itself on the outskirts, so often feels abandoned by bold guarantees.
Sanders’s jump to a wealthy, white school after promising the world to his young Black athletes and their families is yet another reminder that Black people, in particular, have always had to take assurances with a healthy grain of skeptical apprehension — even when they come from people in our communities.
In hindsight, what made any of us think a former player with the status and ego of Prime Time would stay for more than a trickle of seasons? Nothing in Sanders’s past suggested such constancy. Sanders played on four teams in nine seasons as an outfielder in Major League Baseball. During his Hall of Fame N.F.L. career, he played for five teams in 14 seasons. Sanders won a Super Bowl with the San Francisco 49ers and then another with the 49ers’ hated rival, the Dallas Cowboys. Before accepting the Jackson State job, he had left the NFL Network for Barstool Sports.