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University of Colorado Boulder’s new head football coach, Deion Sanders, has made his team a sensation—but his success hasn’t come without detractors. Being a success in a mostly white field as a Black man always attracts denigration, and Sanders has gotten his share of dogwhistles, often in the form of complaints about his attire. But what Sanders’ haters really can’t stand is how good he is. While he may not be above criticism, Sanders has definitely set a new bar for how football coaches can produce spectacular results.

Studio Production: David Hebden, Cameron Granadino
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Audio Post-Production: David Hebden
Opening Sequence: Cameron Granadino
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The following is a rushed transcript and may contain errors. A proofread version will be made available as soon as possible.

Dave Zirin:

Now, I’ve got some choice words about Deion Sanders and the joys of the Hype Machine. Okay, look, a couple Sundays back, 60 Minutes, the great-grandfather of television news whose slogan might as well be “get off of my lawn”, was hyping two exclusive interviews. The first was a conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. The second announced just as breathlessly was another exclusive conversation. This one with the head football coach in a Colorado college town, a town perhaps best known for snowboarding and hacky sack and whose team last year went one in 11. That coach is, of course NFL Hall-of-Famer Deion “Primetime” Sanders.

The publicity and water-cooler curiosity that Sanders has generated after just a few games leading the University of Colorado at Boulder speaks to the team’s turnaround. A year ago, this squad was ranked 128th out of 131 teams and had been an afterthought for years. Then, from historically Black University Jackson State came Coach Prime, bringing with him his two incredible football playing sons, Shedeur and Shilo.

He ruthlessly remade the operation, engineering a massive roster turnover with little regard for anything beyond reimagining a lost program. While so many other coaches have whined tiresomely about the new rules that govern college football like players having access to name, image and likeness, money or being able to rapidly transfer from one school to another, Sanders has taken advantage of them. While others pine for the past, Coach Prime has decided that the present is a fine and even fun place to be. Instead of sneering at the game and begging their old buddy, the openly racist Auburn-coach-turned Senator Tommy Tuberville, to step in legislatively and turn back the clock.

Sanders has brought something absent from college football. The joy of hype and the hype that comes with joy. Sanders haters are legion, yet the hate is not solely because of his sunglasses or his hat or his attitude or whatever other racist dog whistles various coaches and commentators are throwing in his direction. The root cause of the hate is that he has stepped into this world and is doing it not just differently, but better, and that drives the minders of the game into fits.

For decades, college football coaching has been a mausoleum of elderly, square, overwhelmingly White coaches working out their issues on teenagers by barking at them as if they’re about to storm Normandy. The only requirement for this job has seemed to be the ability to pair ulcers with high blood pressure. Sanders has smashed the stain glass windows of this mausoleum and led in some damn oxygen. It’s a culture shift that will eventually drag the sport into the present and out of its revanchist past.

As longtime Colorado hip-hop community radio host Dave Ashton said to me, it’s 2023 and 50 years after hip-hop’s birth, hip-hop attitude, culture and unapologetic Blackness are finally part of the world of college coaching. Yes, it’s true, and it’s wildly ironic, the presence of hip-hop as a cultural force in college football has at last found a home in, of all places, Boulder, Colorado, and it’s playing out in front of a crowd of mostly White students gawking at the spectacle that’s been laid at their feet. The crowd is like the 1950s kids in Back to the Future when they hear Marty McFly play rock and roll. It’s a brand new scene that few saw coming.

The hip-hop component is not just the presence at games of people like Lil Wayne and Offset. It’s not just his son, the quarterback, Shedeur, wearing a gold chain thick enough to use on your tires during a snowstorm. It’s making these games feel young and alive instead of stultifying and grim. The Colorado Colorado State game a couple of weeks back was emblematic of the colliding of these worlds. Colorado State Coach Jay Norvell attempted to the thrill of the sports right-wing commentariat to turn it into the State Farm Tostito’s respectability politics bowl.

Norvell, who’s one of the few Black coaches in college football, said to Sports Illustrated the Wednesday before the game, and I quote, “I don’t care if they hear it in Boulder. I said when I talk to grownups, I take my hat off and my glasses off. That’s what my mother taught me.'” It was a statement that juiced up every old-school commentator on the right-wing toilet that is now Twitter. Then Norvell showed us what old school looks like on the football field, targeting opponents playing ugly and committing 17 penalties for 187 yards. Yes, they kept it close and should have had the upset victory especially after violently knocking Colorado’s best player, Travis Hunter, out of the game. Look, if this is what old school looks like, please, bring on the new.

This is also not to say that there are no critiques to be made of how Sanders has operated since becoming a college coach. His early statements that he went to Jackson State because “God called collect and told him to go to a historically Black college” only to leave Jackson State as soon as the Colorado job became open is not exactly a feel-good story. The way he badmouthed the former Colorado players that he showed the door as part of his roster torn over is really messed up, but that being said, it is college football that’s dirty, not Sanders. It’s an amoral game whose immorality has been called out since the days of W. E. B. Du Bois. Look, sometimes, cliched advice is right. Don’t hate the player. Hate the game. Don’t hate Deion just because he understands the landscape and, like in his playing days, has left his competition eating the dust.

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Dave Zirin is the sports editor of the Nation Magazine. He is the author of 11 books on the politics of sports, including most recently, The Kaepernick Effect Taking A Knee, Saving the World. He’s appeared on ESPN, NBC News, CNN, Democracy Now, and numerous other outlets. Follow him at @EdgeofSports.