Shannon Sharpe Is Dead Serious About HBCUs

Shannon Sharpe delivers the keynote address at an event celebrating HBCUs in Atlanta on Monday.
Shannon Sharpe delivers the keynote address at an event celebrating HBCUs in Atlanta on Monday.
Photo: Nigel Degraff.

Shannon Sharpe has gone viral many times since his 2016 debut on Fox Sports 1’s Skip and Shannon: Undisputed with sportswriter Skip Bayless. Just last year he set Black Twitter abuzz when he appeared on the show with a Black & Mild dangling from his lips, referencing Hennessy as “yak” and “Henn Dog.”

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Because the NFL Hall of Famer goes so hard, seeing his soft side is a rarity. But that’s exactly what he surprisingly revealed Monday afternoon in Atlanta as he gave the keynote address for Home Depot’s 10th-anniversary celebration of the DIY giant’s Retool Your School program. The program has grown from giving out $150,000 improvement grants to HBCUs from its inception to $500,000 presently. This year’s beneficiaries include 10 schools, ranging from Tennessee State University to Mississippi Valley State University, chosen largely through social media campaigns.

During his emotional keynote to a crowd filled with his HBCU peers—including comedian and radio host Rickey Smiley, the program’s emcee and Alabama State University alum, and actor Laz Alonso, a Howard graduate who served as one of this year’s judges—Sharpe shared how his grandmother, Mary Porter, who raised nine of her own children in addition to Sharpe and his two siblings, and Savannah State University, his alma mater, shaped who he is today.

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Sharpe credited Savannah State for giving James Brown’s iconic “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” anthem true meaning for him. “I learned more about me and more about my people at Savannah State,” he shared.

“What you gave to a young, skinny kid from Glennville, Ga., was hope and the belief that I can be anything, I could go anywhere and I could hold my head up high and proud and say this is what Savannah State cultivated,” he told the crowd.

When he spoke of his grandmother—who raised him and his siblings alone after his grandfather passed—and growing up so dirt poor that he didn’t have indoor plumbing until he was 20 years old, there were few dry eyes in the crowd, especially when he shared his grandmother’s primary wish. “Baby, I want a decent house. I want to go to bed one night and I want God to let it rain all night long, as hard as he possibly can, and she said I want to wake up the next morning and not be wet,” she told him.

In an interview with The Root prior to the program, Sharpe fielded questions with his signature no-nonsense flair. Asked why so many college guys don’t choose HBCUs to play football, Sharpe was very real about the lure of bigger programs like the University of Georgia and Oklahoma.

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“A kid that has the grades to get into those schools, he wants to play on television in front of 80,000. He believes his opportunity will be brighter to get to the next level if he goes to a bigger college than an HBCU and that might be true. But, as my college coach Bill Davis told me, ‘Son, if you’re good, they’ll find you.’”

And that they did. Selected in the seventh round of the NFL draft, Sharpe went on to play for the Denver Broncos and Baltimore Ravens, earning three Super Bowl rings (two with Denver and one with Baltimore) and eight Pro Bowl selections. “I got a guy from Michigan and UCLA backing me up; I went to an HBCU,” he joked during his playing days. “And when I get tired, I’ll let y’all come in and give me a break.”

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Sharpe had admiring words for Beyoncé, post-Homecoming, her personal ode to HBCUs. “What she tries to do for her community, [her] people and women of color, how she tries to advance them is what I think separates her from her contemporaries,” he explained. “For Beyoncé to do what she does, to be unapologetic about who she is, how she is, why she is and where she is, I love that about her.”

Russell Wilson, who recently secured a $140 million bag, also drew kind words from Sharpe. “Quarterbacks don’t grow on trees. When you have one, you keep him as long as you can,” Sharpe said, noting that Wilson has stayed consistent throughout the Seattle Seahawks numerous lineup changes, from Richard Sherman to Marshawn “Beast Mode” Lynch. “I don’t think he’s overpaid. He deserves every penny.”

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He also showed appreciation for the WNBA, which just sealed a deal to broadcast 40 live games in primetime and on weekends on the CBS Sports Network, starting on May 25 for its 2019 season. “These women shouldn’t be making $40,000 a year,” Sharpe said. “They can go out and get a regular job and make $40,000 a year. I think the minimum salary for a female basketball player should be a quarter of a million dollars. That’s the least they can do.”

Noting that he is “not a future guy,” Sharpe explained that “I don’t worry about tomorrow; I worry about today.” Sharpe was, however, willing to share his NBA championship predictions. “I’m a little leery on the 76ers, but I’m gone say the Warriors and the 76ers.”

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One thing Sharpe will never grow leery of, though, is discussing the value of HBCUs. Sharpe shared that it was so important for him to be in Atlanta to support HBCUs that, “I went to my job and said ‘Look Home Depot is doing this, it’s for historically black institutions, I can work from Atlanta or I can take the day off; I’ll let you decide.’”

Ronda Racha Penrice is a freelance writer who resides in Atlanta. She is the author of "African American History for Dummies."

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DISCUSSION

If I could go back in time to 1985, a year out of high school when I went to college, I would have probably chosen an HBCU school instead of a private Christian school that had a handful of “US” on campus. But due to the lack of funds for application fees, I didn’t have the monies to apply to all of the schools that I was interested in.

I just wish all athletes of color for one year would choose an HBCU school even those big time kids, to let the mainstream know that they aren’t money pawns to be used. Also, I would like to see them stay their four years and get their degree. Too many folk died to make it possible for them to be even on those campuses let alone get a degree. But the allure of money has made it hard on our brothers whom bolt to the NFL or NBA before they graduate.

When their careers end, by injury or time, some wind of up broke within a few years because they don’t have the tools to reinvent themselves.

I like Zion Williams. He is a true player. I think he could be on par the next Len Bias as far as talent. He would really be something if he stayed at Duke three more years to hone his skills as a player, but also a student and a young man. He is probably going to get a boat load of monies in two months. But if he stayed three more years, he’d get four times that and set for life before putting on an NBA jersey.

I understand hardship. I came from the kind of upbringing that Mr. Sharpe did. Outhouses. Wells. No running water. Holes in the floor and the ceiling. Paper stuffed in the windows and doors to seal out the cold. Fireplaces heated with coal or wood of whatever you could get if there was no money. I understand wanting to uplift one’s family out of that.

But don’t do so at the cost of one’s soul. If one must, make an effort during the offseason to get that degree and start a venture on the side that one can do after leaving the sport that has transformed your lives.

That way, we won’t hear stories like Antoine Walker, Chris Washburn and Mr. Make It Rain in the Club. We’ll hear stories of young men whom didn’t listen to those vultures and got their heads on straight and lived their best lives. 

I’m not an HBCU alum. But I hope one day that they can be equally funded and given the proper respect that they are due in this country.