Like many people, Keels felt angry and scared watching a video of George Floyd’s death in police custody in late May. While seeing people around the country protest police brutality and promote the Black Lives Matter movement, Keels wondered how he could build an African American support group at the university he begins attending in the fall of 2021.
Keels expressed interest in multiple schools where he felt that would be possible: historically black colleges and universities. At a time when many rising seniors are narrowing their choices, Keels also will consider scholarship offers from Hampton, Howard, Norfolk State and Texas Southern. He hopes to visit the schools soon.
An increased focus on racial injustice has affected the recruitment of many top players in basketball and football. Black players worry about how the issues affect them, and many recruits seek schools where they will feel safe and welcome as more than athletes.
“Where a coach stands on the issue will play a role in where kids end up going to school,” Friendship Collegiate football coach Mike Hunter said, “but I also think coaches that are not attacking this thing in the forefront … if they’re not showing support for their student-athletes, that’s definitely going to have an effect on their recruiting efforts in the future. As a coach, period, when you have young men and young women that are going through any adversity, whether it be self-inflicted or something that they have to deal with in society, you have to be there to support them.”
On a humid afternoon in early June, Robinson offensive lineman Tristan Leigh marched in Burke for about three hours while holding Black Lives Matter posters.
The next day, Leigh asked his mother, Laura Rigney, whether he should post pictures of the protest on social media. Leigh had protested before, visiting the District after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017. But he hadn’t publicized his feelings online.
Athletes often worry about how their current or future coaches might feel about something they post. They fear a difference of opinion could affect a scholarship offer or playing time.
But Leigh and Rigney agreed that posting photos of the protest would be beneficial to raise awareness for the movement. By doing so, one of the nation’s top Class of 2021 recruits opened a path to conversations with coaches about these issues. Coaches called him to ask about his experience protesting, he said, and he took notice of how supportive they were.
In recent weeks, college players have been more comfortable speaking out about possible racism exhibited by coaches. In one instance, a former Clemson football player said an assistant coach used the n-word in 2017. Clemson is one of Leigh’s top college choices, and Rigney wants answers from coaches before she is comfortable sending her son there.
“I want to make sure everything I’ve planted as his seeds are going to continue to grow,” Rigney said, “and he continues to have that mind-set where he feels open to speak about what he feels is right.”
Sidwell Friends basketball star Kiki Rice has been a coveted recruit since middle school. With speed and the ability to finish anywhere around the basket, Rice is ranked by ESPN as the top guard in the Class of 2022.
As an underclassman, Rice used her college visits to build relationships with coaches and players, check out facilities and visit campus landmarks. But in recent weeks, Rice has judged coaches by how they have responded to the national discourse.
When protests erupted around the country after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, Rice was in elementary school and didn’t fully grasp the severity of the issue. Now, she wants to be part of change at whatever college she attends.
“Us athletes, over the course of our four years at the school, will spend a ton of time around the coaches,” Rice said. “I’m definitely drawn to coaches who use their platform and are going to say something about this issue.”
Rice wants to play for a coach who understands her and her teammates’ feelings toward social issues.
Coaches throughout college sports, the majority of whom are white, will have to be mindful of these desires.
“It changes the landscape of recruiting and the types of conversation,” South Carolina women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley said. “If you’re coaching a black young lady in our sport … you have to align yourself with their thought process and their feelings. You have to be able to sympathize with them and empathize with them and make sense of it.”
In the right hands
In the days after Floyd’s death, Lake Braddock wide receiver Maxwell James felt exhausted and scared. For James, it felt like this issue would never be solved — another black man had been killed while in police custody.
Then the Class of 2021 recruit received a FaceTime call from Akron wide receivers coach Bryan Gasser, who is white.
“He just stopped me in my tracks and was like: ‘I’ll let you know that I support you and what’s going on. I know I’m not African American, and I will never understand what you go through on a daily basis, but I want you to know that I’m here to talk to you and be there for you,’ ” James recalled.
For James’s mother, Kimberly, this time is a chance to ask more insightful questions about how schools are handling these issues, how they’re supporting their athletes and how much they value diversity. Parents are also curious about each school’s graduation rate for black students, the crime and suspension rates of those students, the activities and speakers coordinated for them and the types of protests near campus.
If there was a college her son was considering that didn’t speak out about these issues, Kimberly James crossed it off his interest list. She also worries about sending her son to some Southern states.
“I want football to be the thing that’s most challenging for them there,” Kimberly James said, “not whether they can safely go to 7-Eleven at night off campus and make it back okay.”
After Maxwell James’s call with Akron, Kimberly stepped in to ask the pressing questions going through many parents’ minds. She said Maxwell has experienced racism since first grade, and she wants him to be protected in college.
After a recent conversation with Monmouth’s coaches, Kimberly received a handwritten note from them thanking her for the questions. To a concerned mother, that showed the program is taking her worries seriously.
A significant step
Recently, Norfolk State men’s basketball coach Robert Jones has received messages from high-level recruits he could only dream of signing. Many are looking for a family-like campus where they can relate to more students, professors and coaches.
That interest turned into action when forward Nate Tabor, a Connecticut high schooler who had Power Five scholarship offers, signed with Norfolk State on June 11.
Many players worry about the lower-quality facilities and reduced exposure at HBCUs, but in men’s basketball, attending an HBCU could become a trend. Some recruits, such as Keels, are interested in building connections and a new path to the NBA within a black community. San Ysidro (Calif.) guard Mikey Williams, one of the nation’s top Class of 2023 recruits, also said he will consider HBCUs.
Most top prospects go to Power Five schools, and Keels will have his pick of them. But there are elements an HBCU offers that those schools don’t: stronger black traditions and a sense of safety.
And what once seemed like a long shot is becoming more of a legitimate possibility for a potential NBA talent.
“You’re not following everybody else going to a high-major school,” Keels said. “You’re respected by more people going to an HBCU.”