On July 22, 2021, Ky’Wuan Dukes received a curious message on Instagram. The redshirt-freshman wide receiver, who attends the historically Black college/university (HBCU) Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU) in Charlotte, North Carolina, was asked if he would be interested in discussing a potential endorsement deal. Dukes wasn’t buying it. “I thought it was a fake account at first,” the six-foot, 185-pound football standout says with a laugh. “I really thought, ‘Nah, this can’t be real.’” Little did Dukes know, not only was it real, but it was also the start of a new reality for him and other HBCU athletes.
The incredulity subsided when the Instagram message led to an official pitch from VaynerSports, a New York–based agency representing athletes. Weeks later, the North Carolina native became the first HBCU athlete to ink an endorsement deal with the national chicken chain Bojangles, ushering in a new era for HBCU athletes who look like the 20-year-old trailblazer. This piece of Black history occurred three weeks after the NCAA’s seismic decision to allow student-athletes to profit off their name, image, and likeness (NIL). Before the rule change, college athletes were essentially unpaid skilled employees going to bed starving while making the NCAA billions of dollars. And HBCUs often got the worst of it.
Over the past three decades, HBCUs have been underfunded by as much as $12.8 trillion compared with predominantly white institutions, according to a report from Forbes. Not only are the resources limited, but the opportunities are also slim. Only five football players from HBCUs have been drafted into the NFL since 2020, including only one in 2020 and none in 2021. Even with this past of HBCUs being overlooked, Dukes still saw joining one as a moment of “Black excellence.”
“I’ve heard negative stuff about going to HBCUs, such as having [a lack of quality] facilities, uniforms, and stuff like that,” Dukes says. “But as long as there’s something I and others can contribute, we will continue to improve. HBCUs are getting more exposure and being put in the position for others to see us. Now we are seeing that change.”
Growing up in Statesville, North Carolina, where the poverty rate is currently higher than the national average, Dukes had to be the change he wished to see. He never saw a family member of his make it to college. His mother was in and out of jail. But he was raised by a loving, stern, hardworking grandmother who taught him that giving up was not an option. And he refused to let it be. In his senior year at Statesville High School, Dukes pulled in 58 receptions for 830 yards and seven touchdowns, was an All-County and All–North Piedmont Conference selection, and led his high school team to a championship and an undefeated 11–0 season .
Dukes is less interested in setting records than he is in setting examples. He’s paying his good fortune forward by “trying to get all of my teammates some type of NIL endorsement, whether it’s $20 or $30 or something.” When he signed his national letter of intent to play college football for the Elizabeth City State Vikings, Dukes didn’t choose a local library or school gymnasium as the venue for his announcement and make the moment solely about him. Instead, he decided to make the announcement in the Fourth Street ‘hood he was raised in. He wants to help spark a new HBCU renaissance and has the precocious agency to take intentional steps toward that goal.
“The shootings and the violence are rampant where I’m from,” says Dukes. “There are children going in the wrong direction because they only see [the negative] and they don’t really see people go to college or do something positive. So I just wanted to show them that you could do this too. I’m the first person in my family to go to college. I’m just like those kids. I want the young boys and girls to see something positive and motivate them, because I needed that too when I was their age.”
Dukes initially received a scholarship to play football at Elizabeth City State before the Covid pandemic canceled his freshman season and he transferred to JCSU. With his Bojangles NIL deal, Dukes joins quarterbacks DJ Uiagalelei and Sam Howell of Clemson University and UNC-Chapel Hill, respectively, as athletes who have signed on with the popular chicken brand. He’s yet to play a single down with the Golden Bulls and is already helping elevate HBCUs to the same level as the major conferences that monopolize the headlines.
But Dukes isn’t an anomaly; he’s a new normal emerging. Jackson State University (JSU) quarterback Shedeur Sanders—the son of NFL Hall of Fame legend and JSU football head coach Deion Sanders—became the first HBCU athlete to sign an NIL deal with Gatorade, in January 2022. JSU defensive end Antwan Owens (3 Kings Grooming), Alabama A&M receiver Zabrian Moore and running back Gary Quarles (Boost Mobile), and Edward Waters University basketball player La’Quanza Glover (Global Freight & Commerce) have all signed their own respective NIL deals, placing a spotlight on HBCUs and illuminating a path forward for the next generation of Black athletes looking for a college to call home.
They’re all part of a potential shift in college sports that Thilo Kunkel, the director of Temple University’s Sports Industry Research Center (SIRC), has noticed. The SIRC has studied the business and evolution of NIL deals, and Kunkel sees them alleviating issues that have long plagued HBCU athletes.
“We hear about the $1 million deals signed by the star quarterbacks, but we’re not just talking about kids getting rich,” says Kunkel. “We’re also seeing $1,000 deals, $500 deals, and product deals for exposure for first-generation students, which is more pronounced at the HBCU level. We are talking about the type of [local NIL deals] that help student-athletes who don’t have a massive social-media following or aren’t stars. The NIL is providing a lot of athletes, whether HBCUs or favorably white schools across the nation, with means to help in their daily living.”
NIL deals are more than financial compensation for talent; they’re testaments to young players’ understanding of the power of their platforms. Maturing in an Instagram generation in which people are always watching has conditioned them to leverage their actions for actual change. In December 2021, cornerback Travis Hunter shattered the college football paradigm by decommitting from Florida State University and choosing JSU. Hunter became the first five star high school prospect to sign with an HBCU since ESPN began ranking players in 2006. After shocking the world, one of the first moves he made was to sign an NIL deal with the Black-owned coffee company J5 Caffeshowing Black solidarity on and off the field.
Unfortunately, the future rarely looks the same to everyone. Speaking at a May 18 event for the 2022 World Games, Alabama coach Nick Saban accused fellow predominantly white institution Texas A&M of buying its entire team through lucrative NIL deals and claimed that JSU’s historic signing of Hunter was due to its paying the five-star recruit $1 million. Sanders, JSU’s coach, wasted no time firing back on Twitter and reminding Saban that there is a world where Black athletes have pride in Black institutions. “We as a PEOPLE don’t have to pay our PEOPLE to play with our PEOPLE,” Sanders tweeted. Dukes couldn’t agree more.
“I didn’t go [to an HBCU] to get a deal. I feel like we are going to HBCUs because we want to make changes. It doesn’t have to just be a Power 5 school every year or any other conference. That’s why I feel like myself and other athletes are doing it.”
Dukes is eager to suit up for his first regular-season game on September 1 as a Johnson C. Smith Golden Bull. When he isn’t on the field, he’s studying the route-running of Los Angeles Rams Super Bowl champ Cooper Kupp, the physicality and intelligence of the Tennessee Titans’ Julio Jones, and the peerless work ethic of San Francisco 49ers immortal and HBCU alum Jerry Rice. But when you see him on the field, know that Dukes is playing for something no scoreboard can quantify and no NIL deal alone can make happen.
“I [believe] in Black excellence,” Dukes says. “We want more of our people and any good athlete or student to come to HBCUs. We want to show people, ‘Hey, we got talent, too.’”
This story was created as part of Future Rising in partnership with Lexus. Future Rising is a series running across Hearst Magazines to celebrate the profound impact of Black culture on American life, and to spotlight some of the most dynamic voices of our time. Go to oprahdaily.com/futurerising for the complete portfolio.