Why Nick Saban's $1M NIL accusation 'stung' Deion Sanders and was an insult to HBCUs

·4 min read

When Alabama football coach Nick Saban accused Texas A&M of buying the No. 1-ranked recruiting class in the nation and Jackson State of paying a player "a million dollars," he was really using Deion Sanders and Jimbo Fisher as "pawns" in order to ask Alabama boosters for more money, Sanders said last week.

"They just threw me in the fire because of what we accomplished in recruiting last year with Kevin Coleman and Travis (Hunter) and some others," Sanders, the JSU coach, said on the I Am Athlete Podcast with Brandon Marshall. "They just threw us in the fire because he was the spokesman for all the SEC and he was the spokesman for all the Power Fives and the PWIs (predominantly white institutions) by saying, 'Hey y'all, we can't let that happen again.' "

Sanders doesn't blame Saban for the comments that led to the Crimson Tide coach and Fisher getting public reprimands from SEC commissioner Greg Sankey. He said he still respects who Saban is as a coach.

But hearing Saban's comments hurt, Sanders said.

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Andscape, the ESPN website formerly known as The Undefeated, reported Thursday that Hunter, the nation's top-rated high school recruit in 2022, has two NIL deals in place and two more in the works for less than $250,000.

Saban's million-dollar accusation exposed a viewpoint that HBCUs can't attract top talent without paying players, Sanders said.

"The thing that stung was that, so you feel like there's no connectivity for the culture, for our people so that the only way we could do that is if we're paying them," Sanders said. "So that's how you feel? So it's no way that I could secure a Power Five-caliber player ... like he chose something less to participate in than what they could offer?"

Deion Sanders: College and Pro Football Hall of Fame player, Jackson State Tigers football coach
Deion Sanders: College and Pro Football Hall of Fame player, Jackson State Tigers football coach

It's no secret that HBCUs have far fewer resources than Power Five schools, especially powerhouses such as Alabama.

Sanders has spoken openly about Jackson State's football recruiting budget being only $15,000 last year. One of Sanders' first initiatives as Jackson State coach was to ensure that the team had a suitable field to practice on. And that's not to mention the fact Saban makes $9.5 million in annual scheduled compensation, more than 30 times more than Sanders' average annual salary of $300,000 per year.

What's more, Jackson State's annual expenses for its athletics department was $10,531,949 in 2020, according to USA TODAY's NCAA finances database. The total is a mere 6% of the $173,141,125 Alabama spent.

So even if Saban's accusation of JSU paying Hunter seven figures turned out to be true, it's highly unlikely paying players that kind of money would be a sustainable model for JSU the way it could be for Alabama.

Nov 16, 2019; Starkville, MS, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban walks on the field before the game against the Mississippi State Bulldogs at Davis Wade Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 16, 2019; Starkville, MS, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban walks on the field before the game against the Mississippi State Bulldogs at Davis Wade Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

The more likely explanation for why Jackson State is all of a sudden able to compete for top recruits is Sanders' presence at JSU.

He's a Pro Football Hall of Famer who might be the best to ever play his position. And he comes from a similar background to many of the kids he recruits, giving him an ability to relate to players in a way most other coaches can't.

And yet, even with Sanders having those credentials, Saban's words suggested he believes the only way HBCUs can land players like Hunter is to cut a big check.

"I'm disqualified from a guy that looks like me, talks like me, walks like me, and kind of wants to be like me?" Sanders said. "That's a problem to me."

Top athletes picking HBCUs is not a new thing. It was the norm decades ago. Jackson State has produced four Pro Football Hall of Famers, more than many Power Five schools.

Power Five schools wisely invested in their programs after integration to create the recruiting advantages they have today. But a talent like Hunter attending a school like Jackson State is more of a homecoming than a new phenomenon.

And sometimes, especially in an era where rules changes and social climate have athletes rethinking how they wield their power, the decision to pick an HBCU can be about more than just football or money. It can also be about how a school makes you feel and treats you as a person.

Perhaps Jackson State alum Walter Payton, who made nine Pro Bowls during a Hall of Fame career with the Chicago Bears, summed it up best.

"The reason that I went to Jackson State was because of something my mom told me a long time ago," Payton said. " ... She said if an individual or person tries to buy your talents, then they think very little of you as a person and more of you as a product.

"Once that product ceases to produce, then that individual has no more need for it. He goes out and buys another one."

This article originally appeared on Mississippi Clarion Ledger: Why Nick Saban's NIL accusation 'stung' Deion Sanders, insulted HBCUs

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