Starting today, we will celebrate March Madness — the NCAA’s time-honored means for selecting the best college basketball team in the country.  It’s virtually certain that a traditional powerhouse will win the tournament, and it’s also safe to assume that a substantial number of that victorious team’s players will be black. Furthermore, it’s a given that many fans will root for upsets throughout the tournament. What is up in the air, however, is when (if ever) will five world-class black athletes assist a historically black college or university (HBCU) in truly upsetting the tournament — and the status quo as a whole — by winning March Madness and reaping all of the financial rewards of such a historic championship run.

The Fab Five

I first thought about the possibility of an HBCU winning the national championship when I read William C. Rhoden’s Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete. In $40 Million Slaves, Rhoden discusses the societal impact of myriad black athletes, including the Fab Five — five of the best black high school basketball players in the country who all chose to enroll at the University of Michigan in 1991 and eventually led the school to two consecutive championship games.

Even though the Fab Five were an unforgettable cultural force who appeared supremely confident in their young black manhood on a national stage, Rhoden emphasizes that a predominantly white institution (PWI) still took advantage of their economic power. In particular, when describing the ‘revolutionary’ act that the Fab Five could have engaged in, Rhoden states that “they could have chosen a Historically Black College and then taken it to the NCAA Final Four as surely as they did Michigan, which would have shone a national spotlight on those schools, driven money and new blood into them, and provided an impressive model of black self-help.”

Rhoden contends that “[i]nstead, they staged a rebellion and chose Michigan, a decision that in the grand scheme of things still empowered the very system of power that has traditionally smothered black aspirations.”  Although Rhoden indicates that the Fab Five discussed attending HBCUs, Rhoden explains that ultimately a “rich, predominantly white institution simply got richer from black labor, while black institutions were left struggling.” 

In the approximately 25 years since the Fab Five enrolled at the University of Michigan, the NBA has restricted athletes’ rights to make a living, racial achievement gaps have persisted in education, and some college athletes have started to demonstrate a greater awareness of their true worth.  Thus, now more than ever before may be the perfect time for five elite black athletes to help an HBCU avoid merely entering — and quickly exiting — the tournament as a low seed and instead become so firmly rooted in the college basketball landscape that its entire student body materially benefits from each athletic feat of the players’ limbs.

The financial benefits

With respect to the NBA, American basketball players no longer even have the option of entering the NBA draft right after high school; they have to be at least 19-years-old and one year out of high school before entering the NBA draft.  \It is thus a standard practice for pairs or groups of extremely talented black student-athletes to enroll at PWIs and lead those schools to championship games while HBCUs such as Hampton University struggle to win games in the tournament.

Since superstar black basketball players are essentially being herded into grossly uncompensated labor at institutions of higher education, it would be disruptive but completely appropriate if five of these elite athletes decided to perform their yearlong NBA auditions at an HBCU and ensure that the revenue streams that they create are converted into dramatically enhanced educational resources for black students such as new 4-year scholarships that cover the full cost of attendance, transformative technology initiatives and paid internships, especially with social justice organizations.

Thus, instead of merely cutting down the net for a PWI after a championship game, these athletes’ efforts could fund scholarships that help masses of HBCU students break the chains of inter-generational poverty. As opposed to supporting a PWI in its efforts to hang another championship banner in its arena, these high-flyers could directly aid the educational aspirations of the descendants of individuals who hung in the air for very different reasons. In addition, rather than helping a PWI be prominently featured in the One Shining Moment video tribute at the end of March Madness, these superstars could help their HBCU reach unseen heights and thereby better serve as a North Star for all of its students.

Given the recent boycott of the University of Missouri’s football players in support of the larger black student community, it at least seems possible that five black high school basketball players may be open to explicitly capitalizing on their economic power for the benefit of thousands of black lives.  Whereas the University of Missouri’s football players showed what could be accomplished when a PWI is presented with a potential loss of revenue, these NBA-bound philanthropists could demonstrate the life-changing value of directing their unparalleled financial contributions to an HBCU.

This year of service would definitely be a physically, mentally, and emotionally draining undertaking for each of the five black student-athletes involved.  However, I think this power move is certainly worth a shot, especially in light of all the shots that we have taken over the years.

Victor A. Kwansa, Esq. is an attorney, educational advocate, poet, and commentator from Prince George’s County, Maryland.   He received a B.A. in Political Science from Yale University in 2008, and he graduated from Harvard Law School in 2011.  He has performed at universities, K-12 schools, community centers, and even once while visiting a former slave camp in Ghana, his parents’ home country.  Victor’s website features his poetry and education-related commentary.

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