Deion Sanders, Black Athletes and the Issue of (Not So) Subtle Racism

Opinion: He may be flamboyant, but Coach Prime is enduring a long-standing legacy of racism against successful Black athletes.

On an impulse, I threw on The Great White Hype last week.

The 1996 Reginald Hudlin comedy, which lampoons the racial politics of boxing, holds up remarkably well after 27 years. It’s only coincidence that I happened to revisit the film the same week that we witnessed a sports-related racial flare-up, courtesy of Deion “Coach Prime” Sanders and his detractors.

Sanders’ Colorado Buffaloes football squad, for which he endured a bit of criticism over leaving his head coaching position at HBCU Jackson State University to head up last year, saw its 3-0 win streak come to an embarrassing blowout of an end Saturday (Sept. 23), 42-6, at the hands of the University of Oregon Ducks.

Deion Sanders’ Team Blown Out by Oregon In First Loss of Season

What Sanders himself called a “good, old-fashioned butt-kicking” aside, the chatter surrounding that particular game felt a bit more insidious than garden-variety sports rivalry.

Oregon’s coach Dan Lanning raised eyebrows in his pre-game speech when he said that Sanders and the squad are “fighting for clicks.” To me, that just comes off as trash talk aimed at the fact that the Buffaloes under Sanders have become a draw, prompting celebrities to attend games they otherwise wouldn’t.

However, a couple weeks ago, rival Colorado State coach Jay Norvell took a shot at Sanders’ tendency to wear shades during an interview:

“I took my hat off and I took my glasses off, and I said when I talk to grown-ups, I take my hat and my glasses off. That’s what my mother taught me,” Norvell said.

I’d imagine everyone Black felt a twinge of cringe at Norvell’s comments – like this White man is publicly policing the behavior of a grown Black man. The Buffaloes still bested the Rams 35-43, and Norvell had the gall to try to deny his comments were about Sanders.

What Norvell’s comments likely demonstrate is yet another instance of how “mainstream America” doesn’t care much for Black athletes with a bit of swagger.

Swagger has undergirded Sanders’ “Prime” brand since the 1990s. Even if you weren’t much into sports (see: yours truly), you knew he was a rare multi-pro-sport talent who dripped brio and backed up his braggadocio.

That might’ve been easier to digest when he was just on-the-field talent, but white folks simply cannot get with the idea of Sanders bringing that personality to college football and inviting the level of attention, financially and otherwise, that his name courts.

Even Skip Bayless’ trifling a--, who reported on Sanders during his stint with the Dallas Cowboys in the 1990s, admitted that White coaches have a “deep-rooted and seated” animosity toward him.

There’s also this tweet from supposed journalist Kari Steele that made the Summer Jam Screen as we all wait for her to answer who “us” is.

None of this is new or surprising – we’ve seen some degree of racism in competitive sports since white people dared to allow us to compete with them. Only now, it’s not the naked throw-an-N-word-in-your-direction-as-you-climb-off-the-team-bus brand that Jackie Robinson experienced.

I’m talking about the subtler but still obvious racism that Black athletes experience well in the 21st century.

I’m talking about the sports commentator who said Serena Williams was more likely to pose for National Geographic over Playboy. Or the many comments about her physique that are dripping in racism and hatred for Black women.

Or the relentless racism that Tiger Woods had to endure as a premier Black golfer in a sport traditionally reserved for white people, even when he was still a kid in the clubhouse, before he started dusting white men in his professional career.

Or the inspiration for The Great White Hype: Larry Holmes vs. Gerry Cooney, a 1982 heavyweight boxing match promoted as an American battle between Black and white (thanks in part to Don King). There were so many threats of violence by white supremacists against Holmes that police snipers were present for the fight in the parking lot of Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas.

Of course, the above is a very non-exhaustive list of proof that Black success in sports – especially ones that aren’t traditionally associated with us – will always foment some degree of racism, and that sports in general will likely always be used as a proxy for the “race war”…an unpalatable notion for a lot of white folks considering we tend to excel at our sports.

As for Sanders himself, his net worth is rumored to be around $45 million – something the majority of NFL players from the 1990s can’t touch. So, I say wear those glasses, talk that talk and win those games. I’d like to believe Coach Prime is sleeping soundly at night through all the racism.

Dustin J. Seibert is a native Detroiter living in Chicago. He loves his own mama slightly more than he loves music and exercises every day only so his French fry intake doesn’t catch up to him. Find him at

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