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Williams: For student-athletes, choosing a school — and a coach — is more than a business decision

With an acid-tongued remark, Tommy Tuberville put to the lie all the sweet talk he used to lure Black athletes.

Tuberville, a U.S. senator from Alabama and erstwhile college football coach, made a fortune off the unpaid labor of Black student-athletes.

But as an elected official, he doesn’t believe African Americans are owed a penny for America’s history of enslavement and systemic racism. In a brazen bit of political stagecraft, he conflated reparations with criminality.

“[Democrats] want crime because they want to take over what you got,” Tuberville said on Oct. 8 during a Donald Trump rally in Nevada.

“They want to control what you have. They want reparation (sic) because they think the people that do the crime are owed that,” he said, punctuating that baseless accusation with a barnyard epithet. “They are not owed that.”

The Democratic Party has not taken a position in support of reparations. The mere study of the issue has been a bridge too far in Congress. The late Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., introduced the study proposal more than 30 years ago, but it never gained traction. It was reintroduced by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, following our moment of racial reckoning in 2020.

Tuberville earned tens of millions of dollars coaching at Auburn, Ole Miss, Texas Tech and Cincinnati. If there were any justice, he’d be required to pay reparations to his Black athletes.

Tuberville, in fairness, did push to remove the Confederate flag from the stadium at Ole Miss. In hindsight, that action seems born at least in part out of self-interest to remove a recruiting impediment.

The Tuberville controversy shines a light on societal inequities.

Deion Sanders, the former pro football star, is making headlines as the coach of a historically Black college, Jackson State University, in a city whose water was recently deemed unfit to drink.

In the same state, former pro quarterback Brett Favre has been accused of diverting welfare money meant for Mississippi’s poorest residents toward causes such as a new volleyball stadium at his alma mater, the University of Southern Mississippi, where his daughter was on the volleyball team.

It’s unclear to what extent, if any, these controversies are on the radar of your average high school athlete — especially when a college coach comes recruiting.

Timothy Jean-Pierre, the head football coach at Hermitage High School in Henrico County, Va., says such transgressions are likely to be overlooked if the product on that college football field supersedes the racism in the eyes of the athlete.

“Football is so much business now that it may or may not deter someone from going to that school,” he said.

Even with college athletes finally being able to cash in on their name, image and likeness (NIL) and having more freedom of movement from school to school, “everybody knows kids sign with the coach,” said Kevin G. Adams, activities director at Varina High School, speaking for himself and not in his capacity at the Henrico school.

When coaching at John Marshall High in Richmond, Adams would tell his athletes, “all things aside, you choose a school where if anything happens and football is taken away, are you where you want to be to finish your education?”

Nonetheless, “Kids sign for very different reasons,” including the color of a uniform or the dazzle of a recruitment visit, he said. “And very few who sign might be signing because of the character of the coach.”

Actually, some kids commit before meeting the head coach of the program; the recruiters look like the kids they’re trying to recruit, Adams said.

Jean-Pierre said it’s important that the colleges do their due diligence when hiring coaches. Financial considerations make it difficult for families to stand on integrity in making college choices, he said.

I get that. For many families of student-athletes, the college decision looms as a portal out of poverty. But surely, those opportunities can be had in programs with a coach with a soul or a social conscience.

And here — at the risk of running afoul of our governor’s ban on “inherently divisive” content — the classroom could play a role.

“I would love to see discussions in government class now. I would love to see debate. I would love to see critical thinking” on these issues, Adams said.

For now, the relationship between student-athlete and college is largely transactional.

Students want to play big-time football to enhance their (statistically slender) chance of earning big bucks in the NFL.

Schools are more interested in won-lost records — and filling stadiums and athletic department coffers — than the content of a coach’s character.

Until this changes, Black athletes may find out too late what their coach really thinks of them.

Michael Paul Williams is a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist with the Richmond Times-Dispatch in Richmond, Va.; read more of his columns on

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