Colorado knows something about avalanches — the power and force inherent in the way a snowball gathers momentum as it becomes something infinitely greater than an icy orb.
And it is perhaps one sign of the impact Deion Sanders’ University of Colorado football team has had that, despite a blowout loss to Oregon last weekend, a defeat that knocked the Buffs out of the major college poll, the level of support surrounding the program has somehow increased.
According to Osei Appiah, a professor at the Ohio State University, who looks at issues of race, culture and communications, that’s because Coach Prime, as Sanders has come to be known, and his team represent far more than wins and losses — especially for a Black community searching for signs of empowerment and authenticity.
“Because for Black people, it's important for us to align ourselves with people who we think are extremely positive and who uplift the community; and we see Deion as being that kind of character,” Appiah told Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner. “He is authentic, he is truthful, he is in many ways, unapologetic in terms of being himself. And that's what we like to see in our leaders. So what Deion tells us in general is that in order to succeed as a Black person, you need not assimilate. You don't have to change who you are to be successful.”
Giving the who’s who populating the sidelines at Folsom Field for the Buffs’ home games — The Rock, Jay-Z and more celebrity names — it’s obvious that Sanders’ program is having a noticeable impact in the Black community. But that celebrity also represents something of a dichotomy, coming on a campus, and in a locale that has experienced its share of racial unrest.
There are some who look upon Sanders and wonder if he might serve as a bridge to help navigate – and perhaps change – that disparity, Appiah says that’s placing an unfair burden on the coach.
“I find it not odd, but disappointing when folks always want to put the burden on the people who are the victims,” Appiah said. “And what I mean by that, Black people as a stigmatized group always bear the burden of having to lead the charge in areas of diversity, in areas of diversifying campuses, diversifying communities, diversifying industry.
“This is not just a problem for Blacks. It's a problem for America in general. Whites should be leading the charge. They should be the ones out developing. For example, if we talk about university in particular, working with Black folks to develop curriculum. To do more in terms of recruiting diverse faculty and staff. Making a concerted effort to support Black student organizations on that campus to create an environment that is conducive for all to succeed, especially Black students on that campus and Black faculty.”
Read the interview
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Osei Appiah: Colorado is different in the sense that it's almost like a movement, one that you want to follow, you want to be a part of. If you look in history, there've been a number of movements. For example, the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power or Liberation Movement. And many of these movements you identify because you see certain characteristics that resonate with you. And that's what's going on, at least for me and many others across the country with Colorado.
Ryan Warner: What are the qualities of a football team, this football team, that make you equate it with a movement?
It's similar to, I won't say similar, but when you think of movements in the past, like the Black Power Movement, it was a movement where people, particularly Black people, saw the folks involved and got a great sense of Black pride from it. You saw the leaders, in this case, you have Coach Prime who's very charismatic, and his message of empowerment, of believing in oneself, resonates with people in general, but the Black community in particular, because for Black people, it's important for us to align ourselves with people who we think are extremely positive and who uplift the community. And we see Deion as being that kind of character. He is authentic, he is truthful, he is in many ways, unapologetic in terms of being himself. And that's what we like to see in our leaders. So what Deion tells us in general is that in order to succeed as a Black person, you need not assimilate. You don't have to change who you are to be successful.
Sanders speaks openly about his faith, which strikes me as related to this. And there's something of a religious, almost evangelical aspect to his approach.
Well, there's probably no stronger institution in the Black communities than the Black church. Sunday morning at 10 or 11 o'clock, we go off to church and we interact with other people who are like-minded, who look like us. And we very much look forward to hearing the sermons from our esteemed pastor who always gives us a great message every Sunday. Deion is very similar to that pastor that we go see on Sundays in terms of the wonderful message, the wonderful sermons he provides, not just on game day, but throughout the week.
And for Black folks, we work hard throughout the week and we look forward to hearing from someone who can help uplift us, who can help instill confidence in us to help with our self-esteem, with our self-worth. And there are very few people who have that kind of effect. And when you look at this society where there's so much racial tension in America, and this is the time where many people believe race relations is at the lowest points than it's ever been.
For someone to help us navigate the racial trauma that we experience every day, to help provide some fun, some entertainment, some inspiration. That's what Deion does, and it isn't unique to Black America. He does that with mainstream America as well. We can talk about that later, but that's the relationship I see, in terms of the Black church as an institution and the power that Deion has is almost pastor-like.
I want to talk about your son because you are bringing him to Boulder, even though I understand he's not really a football fan. What is the appeal for him? What is the appeal for you as his father? Also, I think he just passed his driving test. Congratulations.
Right. He just finished passing his driver's test about an hour ago, and he received a perfect score, something that his father was unable to do when I took my driver's test and probably would be hard-pressed to maybe even pass it at this point. I'll probably have to let him do all the driving. But what my son Ellis sees in Colorado football is his ability, as I mentioned before, the courage and the confidence to be yourself. That you don't need to change who you are to accomplish the goals that you have written down for yourself.
My son looks at Deion as a role model who gives him the courage to walk around with twists in his hair. To walk around as a dark-skinned Black man and feel a sense of pride and to believe Black is beautiful and who you are is beautiful. And he wants to be part of this movement that Deion and Colorado football is conveying to the world. And when you think about it, Colorado football had been quite unsuccessful in the previous years. Last year was one in 11. Previous years, the football team really was awful.
This is an underdog story, and I think what many Black people feel in America is we feel like we've been stigmatized or we felt like we've always been the underdog and we want to see Deion succeed because the odds have been stacked up against him and against Black America. And my son sees that as, "Hey, I want to root for the underdog. I want to root for Deion. I want to root for a team that was one in 10. See that turnaround and be part of that turnaround from the grassroots level.”
So it's unfortunate that oftentimes Black people are put in situations, particularly challenging situations. Where else was Deion going to get a job outside of Jackson State? The job offer that he got was Colorado, a great college, but a team that was one in 11. It's a successful program, a bigger name, place going to give him an opportunity. University of Florida, for example, or one of the major universities in Texas, like the University of Texas. We always get the challenging jobs. So my general point is my son feels empowered by seeing the success of Deion Sanders. He feels proud and empowered to be a Black man. He feels pride with his own racial identity because of how Deion wears his own identity on his sleeve and he believes that he can be himself and still succeed.
The daughter of your best friend is also coming and like your son, she isn't necessarily a football fan. What do you think is in this for her?
She doesn't care anything about football and she wants to be part of the movement. She wants to get some of the more implicit messages from the game such as the other folks who are going to be there. For example, it's believed that Jay-Z will be there, LeBron James, and these are people who have been on the forefront particularly recently in advocating for civil rights in today's times. We see what Jay-Z has done for the NFL in terms of promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion. We see what LeBron has done, not just for the NBA, but standing up for Black rights.
So she sees those as leaders. She sees Deion as a leader fighting for equality, fighting for individuality, and she wants to be part of that movement. So again, if you connect it to other movements that we've had in society, this is one that's very similar. It's more than just football, clearly, it's a story of fighting against the establishments. It's a story that makes us believe that we can fight through all the trials and tribulations and still come on top.
Oftentimes we need a boost. We need someone to energize us because it's tough out there in society, especially when you're an ethnic minority and you deal with so many different microaggressions and you're dealing with racism when you're a student. My son who is in high school and many high schools across the country in places like Texas and Florida, they won't allow AP Black studies. They're getting rid of, at many of the schools, especially the public schools, not just the high schools, but the colleges, they're getting rid of diversity, equity, and inclusion departments. And when I say they, I mean many states and governors aren't allowing diversity programs in the school.
We see affirmative action, the ruling with the Supreme Court and admissions into universities. What that ruling has done in terms of making Black folks across the country and other ethnic minorities feel down, they feel like the odds are against them, like every time we take two steps forward, we have to take one step back. So we look forward to people like Deion who is guarding a level of success and national exposure, and we want to support him.
Now at the same time, Deion Sanders has this massive impact outside the university, inside the school's Department of Education, this letter published alleging a racist climate, causing four female tenure track faculty of color to leave their jobs. A culture of, you mentioned microaggressions, so do they, of everyday violences, gossiping, surveillance and more. There are hundreds of signatures on this letter. So there's a tension here, professor, because universities can be tough places for students of color, for faculty of color.
The University of Colorado has about 2 percent of its student population are Black students. That, to me, is embarrassing. If I'm a university president, if I'm students, if I'm faculty, if I'm staff, I would be doing everything I could to try to create an environment to attract and retain Black students, Black staff, Black faculty. The most important way to create an environment where Blacks can feel comfortable, where they can feel a sense of belonging, where they can feel like the environment is conducive for them to succeed, is to have more Black people a part of that institution.
And when you get four faculty of color who leave not just the university as a whole, but one department, that's a huge hole.
Just for some context, it's 2.7 percent of the student population at CU Boulder enrolled in the fall being African American. That is in contrast to the Black population of the United States as a whole, which is closer to 14 percent. Do you think that Deion Sanders has a responsibility off the field outside the locker room in this regard, or is that too much to put on one person?
I find it not odd, but disappointing when folks always want to put the burden on the people who are the victims. And what I mean by that, Black people as a stigmatized group always bear the burden of having to lead the charge in areas of diversity, in areas of diversifying campuses, diversifying communities, diversifying industry. We make up only 13.5 percent of the population in America. We shouldn't be stuck with the burden of having to lift the load to diversify, to lead the charge in the area of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
This is not just a problem for Blacks. It's a problem for America in general. Whites should be leading the charge. They should be the ones out developing. For example, if we talk about universities in particular, working with Black folks to develop curriculum, to do more in terms of recruiting diverse faculty and staff, making a concerted effort to support Black student organizations on that campus to create an environment that is conducive for all to succeed, especially Black students on that campus and Black faculty.
Back to Deion Sanders and this movement that you say he is building, I want to go to this idea of how diverse it is, of how inclusive it is, because you actually liken it to the movie Black Panther, which obviously had really strong African-American themes and actors, but that had this incredibly broad appeal. How is Buffs football like Black Panther these days?
We know that Black Panther was quite a huge success. You can't have a blockbuster movie like that with just Black folk attending. It has to be an effort that is made by all Americans, not just Black Americans. And that is very similar to what we see with what Deion Sanders is doing. You had a game with 10 million viewers. That, as I understand it, was the most-watched college football game in years. It isn't just Black people watching. It's all folks.
And what I want to impress upon you, people keep saying that Colorado and Deion is Black America's team. It isn't just Black America's team. It is all America's team because white folks and Black folks alike are following the program. They're watching it on television. And if I may, I connect it to a term that I've coined called cultural voyeurism. Cultural voyeurism describes the process by which mediated experiences provide a window into a culture or subculture that would otherwise be difficult for the voyeur to observe or access.
White folks in particular have become cultural voyeurs into Black culture. Deion doesn't just talk about football. He talks about issues that's going on in our communities. So white folks have a great fascination, a great interest, and an identification with the program, with Deion and with Black America in general. And that's what's led to the success. That's why Colorado football has among the top-selling football apparel or sports apparel of any college in the country. That's why Deion and Colorado football are the most watched football games on the weekends. That's why they've been such a success. That's why everybody's tuning in. That's why we're doing this show in part because of the success of Deion in Colorado, but not just because of the interest of Black America, but the interest in white America as well.
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