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NAACP urges Black athletes to avoid Florida public universities over anti-DEI policies

A University of Florida football game last fall.
James Gilbert
Getty Images
A University of Florida football game last fall.

Black college athletes should rethink any decision to attend public colleges and universities in Florida, the NAACP advised in an extraordinary letter issued in response to efforts by Gov. Ron DeSantis to weaken diversity, equity and inclusion efforts statewide.

The letter, authored by the NAACP's top two officials and addressed to Charlie Baker, the head of the NCAA, comes on the heels of last week's announcement by the University of Florida that it would eliminate the school's diversity, equity and inclusion staff in order to come into compliance with an anti-DEI law signed last year by DeSantis.

"From racist voting policies, to unraveling reproductive freedoms and attempting to rewrite Black history, DeSantis has waged war on Black America," wrote NAACP Board of Directors Chairman Leon Russell and President and CEO Derrick Johnson in the letter.

"To all current and prospective college student-athletes — the NAACP urges you to reconsider any potential decision to attend, and compete at a predominantly white institution in the state of Florida," they continued.

Diversity, equity and inclusion programs at educational institutions typically aim to help create and maintain a student body and faculty that is diverse in many senses of the word, often with a goal of reflecting the school's home community or state. (For example, before the legislation was passed last year, the DEI division at Florida International University said it was committed to "building an academic community whose members represent and embrace diverse cultures, background and life experiences that reflect the multicultural nature of South Florida and our global society.")

DeSantis and other supporters of the Republican-led legislation say DEI programs are costly and ineffective, and they accuse the programs of being discriminatory.

The law signed last year by DeSantis prohibits the state's 12 public universities and 28 four-year and community colleges from spending money on DEI programs.

"DEI is toxic and has no place in our public universities. I'm glad that Florida was the first state to eliminate DEI and I hope more states follow suit," DeSantis wrote on X, formerly Twitter, in response to the University of Florida's move to eliminate all DEI positions last week.

DeSantis has made cultural issues a centerpiece of his time in office, especially in education; he has signed multiple pieces of legislation designed to limit instruction about race and sexuality. And he has taken aim at sports, including legislation signed in 2021 that bans transgender girls from playing on public school girls' teams.

"The value of Black talent is undeniable"

About 17% of the state of Florida's population is Black, according to the Census Bureau. Yet Black students made up just 8.5% of students at Florida State University and fewer than 5% at the University of Florida.

But Black students make up an outsize proportion of college athletes, especially in football and basketball, the two sports that traditionally bring in the most revenue for major athletics programs. Black players represent around half of Division 1 basketball and football players nationwide, according to data compiled by the NCAA.

Florida is home to two of the largest athletic departments in the nation — the University of Florida and Florida State University, both of which rank in the nation's top 15 programs in total revenue, according to USA Today.

"The value of Black talent is undeniable, especially when it comes to college sports," Russell and Johnson wrote in the NAACP letter. "At UF and similar institutions, if football stadiums emptied, if merchandise stopped selling, if TV deals fell through, the monetary loss would extend beyond athletics to other university programs."

In total, nine of the state's public universities field NCAA Division I athletic teams, and a tenth plays in Division II. (One of the 10, Florida A&M, is a historically Black university, which the NAACP expressly omitted from its call to boycott.)

Emmitt Smith, the one-time star running back at the University of Florida who went on to become an NFL Hall of Famer for the Dallas Cowboys, said he was "utterly disgusted" by the school's decision, and he criticized university leadership for bowing to political pressure.

"To the MANY minority athletes at UF, please be aware and vocal about this decision by the University who is now closing the doors on other minorities without any oversight," he said in a statement posted to social media.

A handful of other states have taken aim at DEI programs at universities. That includes Texas, where a sweeping ban took effect on Jan. 1 that eliminates DEI offices, diversity training and most activities based on race, color, ethnicity, gender identity or sexual orientation.

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Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.