Clement Williams ’21

Those who tuned into the most recent edition of the NBA All-Star game would have noticed its prominent placement of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

Most notably, Team LeBron represented The Thurgood Marshall College Fund and Team Durant suited up for the United Negro College Fund. But beyond the donations, the court in Atlanta was decorated with HBCU themes, Grambling State and Florida A&M’s bands provided musical accompaniment for the player introductions, and even the refereeing crew of Tom Washington, Tony Brown and Courtney Kirklandwere all HBCU graduates!

Now whether these choices were made to appease players, who expressed opposition to the unnecessary and burdensome risk of an All-Star Game during a COVID-condensed schedule, or instead represented an authentic philanthropic passion for the league, remains to be seen.

However, if the league wishes to prove the latter to be true rather than the former, it is my opinion that the NBA ought to take an additional meaningful step forward in cementing its commitment to HBCUs.

Recently, a study found that one in ten historically black colleges and universities were facing perilous financial strains, and this was prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

For many schools like Wilberforce University, the first private historically Black college in the United States, this means the potential threat of bankruptcy and insolvency. Now in many cases private philanthropy has helped many of these organizations tread water in difficult situations, but many of these institutions are in need of meaningful long-term solutions.

Working with HBCUs on a basketball project was at the root of sports lawyer Andy Schwarz’s Professional Collegiate League (PCL) initiative. Schwarz originally imagined a league where athletes could both attend an HBCU and still retain the rights to their own labor, receiving a salary and the ability to license their own likeness. 

Now the real PCL has stuttered at the starting gates and at roadblocks along its path so far. Whether that be due to the pandemic or the general difficulty of running a sports start-up, it is difficult to say. The PCL has announced three of its teams and has some coaching staff announcements in place but its struggles make manifestly clear just how difficult starting up a new basketball league really is.

Per the LA Times, “Schwarz and Volante found that HBCUs were not willing to leave the NCAA. Then, they switched to a plan that would have the HBL use club sports on HBCU campuses as the home for their talent. That way, the players could represent the HBCU brand and the schools could still be a part of the NCAA with their varsity programs. Resistance remained.”

I propose that the NBA buyout the PCL and restore the league’s original focus, when it was still called the HBL and its calling-card was the connection with HBCUs. If the NBA learns from the PCL/HBL’s experience and reaches out to the most financially endangered private HBCUs with the club affiliation model, instead of courting the most notable and secure public HBCUs in order to “disrupt” the NCAA, the combination of the league’s financial and cultural clout would be significantly harder to turn down.

Here is the perfect chance for the NBA’s philanthropic and basketball related goals to intermingle with the needs of vulnerable HBCUs.

Whether it’s Bennett College’s crowdfunding or Paul Quinn College’s work college innovation, many HBCUs have had to get creative to ensure their survival

Many HBCUs desperately need money and exposure and the NBA brings both to the table. Furthermore, the PCL model where players are students during the regular fall and spring semesters and then play in the summer additionally fits perfectly within the NBA’s current system. In the summer particularly, the NBA off-season is largely barren outside of the NBA draft and the short NBA summer league in July.

So, this NBA HBCU League/NBA U-league, whatever you want to call it, therefore can be a mutually beneficial arrangement, filling an important niche in the basketball ecosystem. The NBA has only just recently expanded its focus on allowing college aged players to play professionally with the newly formed Ignite G-league team, where elite prospects can receive impressive six figure salaries to train and play in the G-League. However, this means that prospects essentially have to make a choice between attending college or pursuing financial compensation.

In my mind, this HBCU League is a perfect in between option for players who want and/or need to make money but also want to go to school. This “NBA U-League” provides an intermediate option between the full professional G-league and the amateur college option.

While potentially in the near future, NCAA College athletes will have the full right to sell their likeness and receive endorsements, they likely will not receive salaries. 

However, under a potential U-league system, players with the desire to be students would have the opportunity to simultaneously earn a salary, a perfect balance of the two options. These students would be in essence semi-pro (seasonally professional) basketball players simultaneously pursuing a degree. These U-league players could receive both a full scholarship to attend school with a substantial stipend during the school year and a professional salary with bonuses and incentives during their summer season. 

These students could both graduate with a degree from a historic and fiscally strengthened institution, as well as with money in their pocket and their families financially secure.

It’s a win for the players who get the best of both worlds as students and professionals. It’s a win for Andy Schwarz and the PCL in realizing their dream. It’s also a win for the NBA, who fill a gap in their calendar, bring additional NBA-prospects underneath their league umbrella, and further their philanthropic commitments. Lastly, and most importantly, it achieves a win for HBCUs who get substantial exposure, facility upgrades, and financing from a partnership with the NBA!

How often do you have a win-win-win-win situation present itself!

By establishing an HBCU league for NBA prospects, the NBA has an opportunity to both improve its product and prove that its HBCU themed All-star game in Atlanta was no aberration, instead demonstrating the beginning of a long-standing commitment to these institutions.