JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Years before Jackie Slater was a Hall of Fame offensive lineman, he was playing for Wingfield High School in Jackson, Mississippi, and hoping to attract the attention of college scouts.
This was in the early 1970s — about the time Southeastern Conference football teams were just beginning to recruit black players — so this massive teenager was mostly ignored by the big schools. But Jackson State welcomed him.
"It was where I was wanted," Slater recalled. "And it's where I could excel."
Slater was one of many players who thrived at the nation's historically black colleges and universities, particularly from the '60s through the '80s. NFL superstars Jerry Rice and Walter Payton were part of that wave.
But HBCUs have slowly turned into an afterthought on the college football landscape.
For the first time in the NFL's common draft era, which started in 1967, not one player from the Southwestern Athletic Conference or Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference was selected this month. The two conferences combined to produce at least 20 NFL draft picks every year from 1967 to 1976, according to research by STATS. That output has slowly declined since.
Now storied programs like Grambling, Southern, Florida A&M and Mississippi Valley State are known more for crumbling facilities, player boycotts and struggles to meet NCAA academic standards than for what happens on the field.
College sports revenue and spending have become increasingly unequal over the past three decades, and HBCUs have hard time keeping up.
The lack of money is especially pronounced for schools in the SWAC, which have yearly athletic budgets as low as Mississippi Valley State's $3.6 million.
That's about half the salary coach Nick Saban earns at Alabama, where the school's total athletic budget is well over $100 million. Even other Football Championship Subdivision schools have athletic budgets twice as large as many as those at HBCUs.
Like his late brother Walter, Eddie Payton played football at Jackson State, where he is now the golf coach.
Payton says bringing HBCUs back to some level of prominence is possible, but it will be difficult. As TV contracts for college football have grown, the bigger schools have been able to pour money into facilities and programs that make it nearly impossible for HBCUs to compete for elite athletes. And, as recruiting has grown more sophisticated, schools from around the country have been taking star football players out of the South, the main talent base for the HBCUs.
"It's not that we're getting less money — it's that everybody else is growing while we've basically stayed the same," Payton said. "We haven't cultivated our fan bases and now the quality has gone down. It's going to be hard to get those people back."
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