BETHELEHEM, PA – Deion Sanders was an excellent NFL defensive back. He won two Super Bowl rings, and without question he belongs in the NFL Hall of Fame. His exploits on the field, the work he put in, and his physical ability were amazing. As a Saint fan, I hated seeing him on the opposing team. But he was one of the greatest football players in the NFL, and I saw and respect that.
In terms of being a collegiate football coach, however, I don’t respect him, because he should have never been allowed to become a college football coach in the first place.
I get it. People like him. People get dazzled by his million-dollar smile and his sense of humor.
And sure, he’s made the news. That’s what Deion does best – put his name in the news, like every good carnival barker knows. Deion knows how to promote Deion, and there’s nothing like promoting Deion than bring a camera in with you for your inaugural speech at a new school less than 24 hours after “coaching” your last game at Jackson State.
I mean, media-wise, that’s just good sense in terms of being viral! And announcing your son as starting quarterback in the same press conference – that’s incredible TV! Great ratings! Great press for Deion Sanders! (Oh yeah, and his son – who ostensibly is still a Jackson State student, attending classes and supposedly starting this Saturday at the Celebration Bowl.)
But all along the way – well before he even had the idea to build a lucrative career as a head football coach – Deion Sanders has disrespected the one, overriding thing that makes college athletics, well, college athletics.
He’s disrespected the education of the kids he’s supposed to be educating.
I am fine with Deion taking his freakshow on the road in the NFL, or being part of a paid football camp where folks pay money to one thing and one thing only: see Deion’s face and hear Deion say something entertaining.
But me, personally, I would never let my kid play under him or have him educate my kids. That’s because he was involved in a school that was a complete and utter fraud, misleading and defrauding more than 1,000 kids and their families and making a mockery of their education.
Don’t believe me? You think it’s impossible that Prime Time as involved in something like that?
It’s not enough to note that Deion Sanders’ name was on the school to promote it and perpetuate the fraud, although it was. Detailing what went on there wasn’t just a financial and institutional disaster, even though it it was. It wasn’t just about paying more attention to a reality show than running the school, though it was that as well.
It was the story of the abomination the school made of education that needs to be addressed again and again.
In the early 2010s, Deion, brand ambassador for Under Armor, was approached with a great business proposition: “A partner suggested creating a Texas charter school,” The New York Times reported. “They would name it after Sanders: Prime Prep Academy. They would collect and mentor the finest male athletes in Texas and elsewhere and become a powerhouse.”
Oddly, he and his business partner, DL Wallace had joined forces to create a book called the PrimeTimePlayer Pages. For a fee, parents could put their kids inside of a type of book that would be sent to colleges and universities. The project fell apart – Sanders and Wallace got hit with a $1.8 million fraud lawsuit from investors.
Yet despite that history, somehow their scheme took hold in Texas.
The story of the foundation of the charter of the school being proposed to the Texas Board of Education, which seemed to rely more on a Deion Sanders personal appearance than, you know, any actual academic curriculum. “The curriculum design was nonexistent — it was laughable,” one dissident board member claimed.
Athletically, Prime Prep was poised to a powerhouse school in the Texas high school athletics world. Sanders made sure it was so. Allegedly, he recruited kids from the local Waffle house. He had kids from Turks and Caicos living in an apartment off campus on his dime – a recruiting violation. Routinely he would poach coaches from nearby school and their athletes – also recruiting violations.
But it’s the academic side of the school that bore Deion Sanders’ name that should disqualify him for any job centered about the education of youth.
“Poor and working-class parents talked of academics but cherished most dearly Sanders’s promise that their sons would play and play, and with luck obtain scholarships and pro contracts, The New York Times article said. “Okey Apkom, a dissident member of Prime Prep’s board, told [the author, Michael Powell] it was common knowledge that athletes received the grades they needed to keep their eligibility. ‘The parents wanted a 2.5 G.P.A. so the kids could play,’ he said. ‘And it happened.'”
Academically, the K-12 school was ranked as one of the worst in the state of Texas, which is no mean feat. “It’s a world-class failure when it comes to academics,” said Bob Sanborn, CEO of Children at Risk, a nonprofit that ranks the quality of Texas schools. “This is a bad school.”
Stories abounded of athletes being out of control. “Students would come to class, especially football players, and class was just like recess,” former student DeMarcus Peterson told The Washington Post. “It was just so easy, and the teacher, he just didn’t care. It’s like he wanted to pass everybody and get everybody out of there.”
The NCAA in the early 2010s was aware of the academic issues at Prime Prep and didn’t recognize their classes, which made their athletes ineligible for college scholarships. That didn’t stop Deion Sanders from heading to other charter schools – knowing this – setting up team meetings and illegally recruiting athletes from other academies, frequently using Prime Prep infrastructure to blast robocalls to the families who attended.
Some people might be able to forgive his role in this, but I happen to call this fraud.
Somehow, as Prime Prep imploded, Deion Sanders ended up the one person unaffected by the radioactive fallout when the school went bankrupt, having moved on to lucrative gigs when the school survived a power struggle, allegations of physical violence, windows being smashed out from board members, and eventually went under, not paying their employees at the end of their time.
But the school bears his name, and though he might not have been responsible for all of the schools’ problems, he can be traced to a fair number of them.
In the wake of this scandal, played out on television and the press about the prep school that bore his name, and the place where he worked, shot his reality show and coached, Jackson State AD Ashley Robinson asked Deion Sanders, who didn’t have the proper NCAA qualifications at the time, if he wanted to coach football at Jackson State. Famously, he didn’t even ask him about the academic troubles at the prep school that bore his name, nor about the lawsuits. Had Deion learned his lessons? Was he qualified to teach and educate young men in the state of Mississippi? Robinson didn’t ask.
But Deion was hired. He was hired even though he had never finished his undergraduate work at Florida State, because he had declared for the NFL as a junior and never returned to class. From a splashy boast in January that “he was going to be a college head football coach someday,” he had to take classes, almost secretly, for six months to get his undergraduate degree at Talladega College to even get a certificate to allow him to be a college football coach.
(How the NCAA allowed Deion to be a head coach at a Division I institution, mere months after completing the requirements, and considering his involvement in the management of Prime Prep, not to mention his involvement in the recruiting book fraud, is yet another mystery of the ages. If anything it shows the sheer incompetence of the NCAA to uphold its commitment to education, of which sadly there have been many examples in the last decade.)
Deion was hired at a strange time, one where some high-profile high school athletes were allegedly choosing HBCU’s over “primarily White institutions”, like Power 5 schools like Penn State, Iowa State or Alabama. It was at this time Makur Maker, a highly-touted recruit, made the announcement he chose Howard University over more traditional college basketball powerhouses. It was a splashy move, and one that gave Howard s bump of publicity for a time.
Not to be outdone, Sanders entered the arena. In this environment, Sanders was able to talk that game very well, because that’s what he does. Using his paid media contacts at Barstool, ESPN, the NFL Network and Under Armor, he almost made it sound like he was going to have Jackson State play against Alabama in a Playoff Bowl.
But that’s why he was hired at Jackson State – to be a carnival barker. To win football games, and to do what he does, which is be a star. He wasn’t asked to be an educator.
To me, it seems like a huge illusion, of course, one that served one person very well – Deion Sanders, and his son, Shedeur Sanders, who was always going to be the presumptive starting quarterback once his dad came to coach, to attend Jackson State.
But that came at a cost – thousands of duped fans, who bought into Deion’s lies about him rolling up his sleeves and being in this for the long haul – for the education, God. for the betterment of HBCUs, and the betterment of Jackson State itself.
To me, it was all so transparent. Deion has always traded on hope, but did he really care about the plight of HBCUs in general, or was it that he primarily cared about Deion? It sure didn’t seem to me he was marching on Washington to fight to fund HBCUs better, or working to fix some of the endemic problems of Jackson, Mississippi. It seemed to me more like he magically thought his presence was going to solve all of Jackson, the SWAC, and Jackson State’s problems by just showing up and smiling, not by doing the hard advocacy work required to make positive changes. How would that benefit Deion?
The real proof of Deion’s legacy will be in what happens at Jackson State after he leaves. I’d love to be wrong about this, but with all that talk of winning football games, great attendance, and “exposure”, Jackson State doesn’t seem to have changed much as an overall athletic program.
And If I’m judging by Deion’s previous frauds regarding education, I fear what might happen next.
Is Under Armour going to keep getting Jackson State football athletes new uniforms each week now that their brand ambassador is gone? Did Deion do anything to restructure how the Jackson State athletic department works, to make it more sustainable? Jackson State routinely leads the FCS in attendance, and attracted some different exposure from Sports Illustrated, ESPN and any number of vapid writers and talking heads helicoptering on the scene – but did that change the budget? Did it help the school grow its enrollment? Offer cutting edge classes? Improve curricula? Are there lasting, impactful changes that will keep Jackson State expanding and thriving this decade? Or was it a one-off, a circus that came to town, entertained people for a while, and left a mountain of elephant crap to clean up?
With all the additional “exposure” and attendance, Jackson State’s athletic budget in 2021 was $2.1 million. One might ask the question, if Deion Sanders’ presence was so revolutionary, how come it didn’t seem to affect Jackson State overall? Why hadn’t the budgets doubled?
And based on the stories from Prime Prep, what about academics at Jackson State?
There are lots of articles out there about Deion Sanders or things that he said, did or didn’t do, in regards to Deion Sanders, his son, or football recruits – but one area where Deion Sanders is conspicuously quiet is in regards to the academics of his athletes at all – even a positive release about the graduation rates of its athletes. Considering normally you have to tear Deion Sanders away from a camera, it’s an especially curious thing that he wouldn’t say a thing about academics, positively or negatively. (In 2021, South Carolina State additionally reached out to Jackson State in a graduation rate-oriented piece, the athletic department didn’t respond.)
Deion’s hopeful legacy at Jackson State is likely to be a lot less lasting and impactful than people thought. I’m just worried that in the years to come what’s going to happen at Jackson State now that he’s left. I’m hoping Jackson State’s legacy won’t mirror Prime Prep’s. I’m worried, because history has shown that’s what Deion does.
Chuck has been writing about Lehigh football since the dawn of the internet, or perhaps it only seems like it. He’s executive editor of the College Sports Journal and has also written a book, The Rivalry: How Two Schools Started the Most Played College Football Series.
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