Travis Hunter's HBCU jump may not signal sea change, but college football is better for it

Travis Hunter, the No. 1 high school player in America, flipped his college commitment from Florida State to FCS-level Jackson State on Wednesday.

It was the most stunning college football recruiting decision in decades. No one turns down the richest and most successful programs in the country to sign with an HBCU. Well, they didn’t until now. And it may not take long before decisions like this, while still uncommon, aren’t that uncommon.

Hunter is a dynamic, 6-foot-1, defensive back/wide receiver from Suwanee, Georgia, in the Atlanta suburbs. He could have attended any school in the country.

Yet he chose to go play for Jackson State in part because of Tigers head coach Deion Sanders, in part because he wanted to attend a Historically Black University and, in part, because this made a whole lot of business sense.

This is the first recruiting class that profit off name, image and likeness and maybe no one played this game better than Hunter. The speculation of what was committed to him reached into the seven figures, although what is real and realized remains to be seen. (Is he going to be in AFLAC commercials with his coach?)

What is undeniable is that Hunter made himself a massive star and cultural hero Wednesday and thus set the standard for players to rethink what NIL can do for them.

It isn’t always about signing with a name-brand school, or being another star (or even the highest-rated star) on a star-studded roster. It’s about being the biggest deal on a presumed (but perhaps more profitable) smaller stage by offering entree for businesses to a specific community and getting fan bases to pay for something that they otherwise couldn’t get.

It’s why for all the handwringing about how NIL would favor only the current power programs, the reality is that it is far more likely to spread out great talent. At least a little, because money (above the table, finally) can allow certain programs to make up for historic deficiencies.

Yes, the Alabamas of the world have lots of money. But they don't have all the money. Jackson State (and elsewhere) has some too.

“It will almost certainly be more profitable for some players to be the big fish in a smaller pond,” said Andy Schwarz, a leading sports economist and chief innovation officer for the Professional Collegiate League.

The more recruits realize their value is being redefined outside of the traditional parameters of college football, the more stories such as Hunter's will become common.

“The [former] amateurism model was in no way inducing competitive balance and it certainly wasn’t encouraging it," Schwarz continued. "If you undervalue something [by offering just tuition, room and board to players], it is easy to hoard it because it’s cheaper.”

So here’s the No. 1 player in the country willingly choosing a lower division of competition. Some of that is because he is a Sanders play-a-like, so it’s not like he’ll lack great coaching. And some of it is because guys as athletic as he is will not be punished for the decision by NFL scouts.

Part of it, however, is because by singling himself out as a one-of-a-kind recruit, a bold thinker blazing his own trail and energizing a school with a prideful tradition (Walter Payton, Jackie Slater, et al.), he struck the marketing jackpot.

If Hunter signed with Florida State, few outside of the niche community that follows recruiting would know his name right now. He could, and likely would, blossom into a big star over the next few years, but it’s a crowded market.

Instead he’s the lead story in all of sports today and a feel-good tale especially for fans and alumni of HBCUs everywhere. Yes, even Alcorn State fans are nodding a little bit.

That’s called creating value. And Travis Hunter should cash in on every last drop of it, no matter how much some old-school football coaches whine and complain. It’s not like their salaries are dropping.

Jackson State head coach Deion Sanders directs his players against the Florida A&M Rattlers on Sept. 5.  (Nick Tre. Smith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Jackson State head coach Deion Sanders directs his players against the Florida A&M Rattlers on Sept. 5. (Nick Tre. Smith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

This is absolutely what NIL can and will do. Not a mass scale, but certainly in the micro. It’s how startups or companies far from big cities try to beat bigger, richer employers for talent in the workforce.

Money talks. Always.

For most players, that will occur at the big schools which generate the most profits and offer the most exposure. This is a unique, although not exclusive, case. It isn't some seismic event.

“NIL doesn’t change where the athletes are valued and athletes go where they generate the most value,” Schwarz said. “So Hunter is actually not, in my view, some sign of a coming sea change.”

Needless to say, the ACC and SEC don’t need to panic. But in this case, Hunter’s earning potential is probably bigger at Jackson State than FSU despite not playing in major FBS-level games or the College Football Playoff.

First off, he’s the first one. Such news loses shock value as it is repeated. Second, embracing the underdog is a powerful thing. Stephen Curry is one of the biggest college basketball stars of the past two decades, not because he played at Duke or Kentucky but because he didn’t (he starred for Davidson).

And while Jackson State (11-1 this season) may not be in the SEC or ACC, it is by no means some tiny, insignificant program. It has long been a big deal in Jackson (a metro area of 600,000) with deep roots in the Black community across the state. Three times this season, the Tigers attracted crowds of over 50,000 to Veterans Memorial Stadium.

And now it has a breathtaking young talent who is already a point of pride for millions across America.

In simple economic terms, he made a very wise decision.

In terms of college football, he represents a spreading out of talent. It’s a trickle so far. Most of the best players still signed with the best programs on Wednesday — Alabama, Georgia, etc. That will likely continue. But a few five-star recruits chose their local school (Missouri, Iowa, North Carolina) in part because of NIL opportunities. It may never turn into a floodgate, but it’s something.

If nothing else, NIL makes these kinds of decisions easier, leveling the playing field so if the best player in the country really wants to go play for the NFL legend at the HBCU, there is plenty of incentive for him to make that move. Or maybe it's a QB to Boise State. Or a local linebacker to Cincinnati.

Either way, good for Travis Hunter. Good for Jackson State. Good for HBCU football in general and the SWAC in particular.

And good for college football.