By Donal Ware, boxtorow.com
It’s the same old story when it comes to HBCUs and the NFL Draft. Jackson State cornerback Isaiah Bolden was the only HBCU player taken in this year’s NFL Draft. He was taken in the last round (seventh), 245th overall, by the New England Patriots. That makes a total of seven players drafted from HBCUs in four years.
The National Football League should be embarrassed.
A so-called HBCU Combine put on by the league is still not aiding players in getting drafted. Troy Vincent, Sr., executive vice president of football operations for the NFL wrote an op-ed in the Fayetteville Observer AFTER last year’s draft, “encouraging” HBCU players, saying in part, “…aim high. There’s a path that runs to the NFL that runs straight through HBCUs – and it’s only getting wider.” Problem is, the path is not running though the draft.
As I wrote last year, The National Football League prefers HBCU players to sign free agent contracts instead of being drafted. Like, what difference does it make to the league? It still gets to associate its name with HBCU, which is a hot topic and has been especially since the murder of George Floyd three years ago. Meanwhile, the general population, and specifically HBCU supporters, don’t really know the difference because all they know is the message that the NFL is trying to convey.
As Mr. Vincent pointed out in his op-ed piece, 33 players signed with NFL teams. That’s 33 players that did not get a structured guaranteed signing bonus. Meanwhile, 31 HBCU players made opening day rosters last year. Of the 33 signed as free agents, five made opening day rosters. That’s one more than the number of players drafted last year. The op-ed piece seemed to try to tout that the NFL was proud that four players were drafted and many others had been signed to free agent deals.
Really though, not much to be proud of there.
The lack of players being drafted is, in part, why players are leaving HBCUs to go to other programs. While the motto most associate with the NFL is, “…if you can play, they will find you,” it doesn’t exactly hold true. While they may find you, they won’t draft you.
And what’s the point of the HBCU Combine if players aren’t going to be drafted? Bolden did not participate in the combine, meaning no player that participated in the combine was drafted. A player like Florida A&M’s Isaiah Land, whose production over the last two years has been as a high as anyone in FCS, including winning FCS and HBCU Player of the Year awards, did not get drafted? What about HBCU All-American offensive lineman Mark Evans from Arkansas-Pine Bluff? Or another HBCU and FCS All-American, Xavier Smith of FAMU, who caught 87 passes last year, which ranked in the top 20 for the most receptions amongst all four NCAA divisions.
Instead of trying to pull the wool over our eyes and telling us what it is doing, the NFL needs to make donations to HBCUs. Upgrade specifically football facilities. Give money towards scholarships. We don’t need a combine, particularly one that is ineffective to what it was supposedly designed for.
HBCU players need a chance and they are not getting that chance from the NFL. When players are drafted, it’s generally in the low rounds, almost as to say, let’s get a guy drafted so there is no repeat of 2021 when not a single HBCU player was taken. Come on, one player with all the talent level, yet each day we’ll here about more free agent signings?
And when given the opportunity, HBCU players make the most of it. Case in point, James Houston IV was drafted in the sixth round by the Detroit Lions last year. He was cut on August 30, resigned to the practice squad on August 31, made his debut on Thanksgiving against the Bills, where he registered two sacks. He proceeded to register a sack in the next three games and registered three sacks against the Bears in Week 17. He finished the season with eight sacks in seven games.
The NFL has a problem with the hiring of Black head coaches. It also has a problem with drafting HBCU players. For all of the history of HBCU players in the NFL, all of the Pro Football Hall of Famers, the NFL has to do better.
Donal Ware has covered HBCU football for 25 years is the host of the nationally syndicated sports talk radio program BOXTOROW, airing in over 27 markets across the country and on SiriusXM College Sports Radio and on SiriusXM Channel 142, HBCU.