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Deion Sanders could have positive impact on diversity, inclusion with CU Buffs, city of Boulder

Colorado Buffaloes head football coach Deion Sanders speaks at a news conference on Feb. 1 in Boulder. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)
Colorado Buffaloes head football coach Deion Sanders speaks at a news conference on Feb. 1 in Boulder. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)

At the start of his national signing day press conference on Feb. 1, Colorado head football coach Deion Sanders once again expressed his feelings for the city of Boulder.

“Let me start by saying I absolutely love Boulder, Colorado. I really do,” Sanders said. “It was a hidden gem for me because I had no idea. … I absolutely love it.

“I can’t wait to get into a home so I can lay down and chill, have a dog run around the yard and call the place home. … And I thank you for welcoming me. You’re making me feel pleasant, welcome – my family, my kids, everybody. Our new signees, the whole football team staff, coaches, everyone that we brought, you have made them feel impeccably good.”

DaWon Baker, Colorado associate athletic director for diversity, equity and inclusion
DaWon Baker, Colorado associate athletic director for diversity, equity and inclusion

It wasn’t the first time Sanders has praised Boulder since he was hired on Dec. 3. Mainly through social media, Sanders and members of his family – including three children who are or will soon be CU students – have routinely expressed how much they enjoy being in Boulder. Every time they do, it makes DaWon Baker happy.

Baker is in his second year as CU’s associate athletic director for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), striving to make sure DEI is impactful in all areas, including the experience of the student-athletes.

“I help that strategy and I help make sure that all the decisions we make at CU Athletics, there’s an element of DEI that is embedded into it,” Baker said.

Baker said CU athletics has one of the largest DEI staffs in the country and that the investment in that area positions the school to be a leader in that regard. Baker said he also feels full support from athletic director Rick George, adding that George “has done a really good job of identifying that (DEI) matters for our athletes.”

Sanders, the third consecutive Black head football coach hired at CU, could have the ability to dramatically enhance CU’s efforts with DEI.

“Deion Sanders, he’s a microphone,” Baker said. “Good, bad or indifferent, no matter how you feel about it, that’s part of who he is, so he amplifies. I think by having him here, he can bring a lot of awareness and attention to things that we’ve done historically, to continue to kind of build on the momentum and the success that we want to have in the future.”

Sanders is like no other coach around the country, let alone in Boulder. A Pro Football Hall of Famer and national celebrity, Coach Prime has been in the spotlight for decades.

Since hiring Sanders, CU has seen a remarkable impact in many areas, including recruiting, ticket sales, fan engagement and more. The diversity of CU and Boulder could be impacted, as well.

“He can attract, I think, a player, a fan, a person, a demographic, etc., that historically we’ve had a little bit of, but not as much,” Baker said. “And I think what will end up happening with that is if he continues to recruit at the level that they have so far and brings in individuals who come from different backgrounds than what we have here, it’s only going to add to the flavor that we already have.”

In the fall, CU had 36,122 students enrolled, with 65.7% of them being white and only 2.6% being Black/African American.

Donovan Wilson saw that difference when he first arrived at CU last fall. Working with Baker as a postgraduate intern, Wilson came to CU as part of the McClendon Program and Minority Leadership Initiative.

“The first day, I walked across campus and the campus was beautiful, but I noticed that I didn’t really see any other students of color,” he said. “In the athletics department, that’s really only where I saw other students of color.”

CU is hoping that will change as Sanders continues to shine light on Boulder being a place that is welcoming to minorities.

Last month, CU had its official grand opening of the Center for African and African American Studies (CAAAS), and Sanders made an appearance to tour the space and meet CAAAS leaders and guests.

“We want to make sure that he is seen as someone who is accessible to our campus and specifically to our students of color who are not athletes, as well,” Baker said, “because we think that will actually drive up applications and drive people to want to come here to just want to be close to it.”

It will take time to see if Sanders has an impact on the amount of non-athlete Black students applying to CU, but Wilson said he’s already seen Sanders’ overall impact.

“In some sense, we’re starting to change the culture of CU-Boulder, which I think for people of color that’s a positive impact,” Wilson said. “That’s something I definitely noticed for sure.”

A native of St. Louis, Baker said he believes Boulder is a great city for minorities, but said, “It’s really hard to come here unless you’ve been here – you’ve visited, know somebody that lives here and being able to see it in person.”

Last month, CU had a screening of the film “This is Not Who We Are,” a documentary about Boulder’s image of being predominantly white but also the long history – positive and negative – of Black citizens in the city.

“It paints a very clear picture of, hey, there’s a perception that we haven’t been here, where historically we’ve always been here,” Baker said, “but also, here are some of the positives and the negatives to that. … Here’s what has happened, here’s what we don’t want to happen again and here’s the things that we really want to continue to happen.”

Sanders, his family and assistant coaches praising Boulder could help CU.

“When (Sanders was hired), we talked as a group and just said, hey, this is going to be different for us, mainly because it’s going to bring more attention, prospective awareness to what we do,” Baker said.

If nothing else, Sanders and his family are showing that CU could be a more intriguing option for Black students around the country.

“If they never walk through the door, it’s kind of hard to make it to make it pop,” Baker said. “Now, they’re walking through the door, or at least have an interest to walk through the door.”