The simplest and most enlightening way to think about how America experiences Deion Sanders in this remarkable start to his career at Colorado is that he is arguably the most famous person to ever coach college football.
This may seem obvious. But fame is one of those phenomena where degrees of fame really matter a lot. Nick Saban, for example, is so famous that he would be immediately recognized by any college football fan and perhaps the majority of people who watch sports in general (he seemed to experience this in Italy in during the summer, where he thought he could go incognito until he realized that football fans also take summer vacations abroad).
But Sanders’ fame exists on an entirely different level than others, as he has been a part of mainstream popular culture for 35 years in a way that has penetrated beyond his career as a professional athlete. You watched him do commercials for Pizza Hut, Pepsi and Nike in the early 1990s. He was in rap videos. He organized a Miss USA pageant. He was the star of his first reality show in 2008. In one way or another, he has been a part of our lives for a very long time.
Based on that star power alone, maybe we should have expected some of the numbers we’re seeing Colorado football generate.
On Tuesday, ESPN said Colorado’s double-overtime win over Colorado State peaked at 11.1 million viewers, a truly remarkable number considering the game kicked off after 10 p.m. on the East Coast , a time slot where network executives typically cartwheeled to draw. a few million.
And it wasn’t even Texas-Alabama, which had done well the week before, but not as well as Colorado-Colorado State. The Deion brand might, in fact, be bigger than the sport itself.
But why? The answer lies in Deion’s typically American quality.
While this may have been clear to some when he was a multi-sport athlete, pitcher, and television personality, it became glaringly obvious in his more culturally complex position as a college football coach: Sanders’ fame was built from ‘a way that allows everyone to see what they want to see.
This is not a criticism; it is an integral part of his genius. And it is working, across much of the country, to reach across racial, political and generational divides in a way that almost nothing does today.
A headline on Axios on Monday declared that Sanders was “making Colorado ‘Black America’s team,'” citing growing television audiences in black households and the star power of the sports and entertainment worlds. entertainment that flock to Boulder for the games.
Meanwhile, Danté Stewart, an author and commentator, posted on the social media site
And yet, on Sunday, Coach Prime was the star of “60 Minutes” — perhaps the most established hour of television in America — with his segment generating nearly 2 million views on YouTube as of Tuesday morning. The segment featuring the show’s other star, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, was viewed 192,000 times.
Even typically right-wing sports websites that cultivate war on anything they deem “woke,” especially if it happens to be a black athlete, coach, or reporter, have jumped on the bandwagon. Coach Prime walking. Their audience can’t get enough of him either.
How does Sanders fare in a time and country where everything, including sports, seems polarizing?
Much of it, I suspect, comes from the fact that Sanders has managed to maintain decades of cultural ubiquity without revealing much more about himself than is necessary to fuel Prime’s character. At this point, we’re all in this together. And the empty spaces he leaves in between allow Sanders to be whatever you want him to be.
The only other sports star in American life who has achieved anything close to it while having such a consistent and aggressive public persona is Charles Barkley. And yet Barkley is far more willing to share his worldview and even sometimes offend than Sanders, whose emphasis is more WWE and whose opinions on anything substantial are more of a mystery.
People may roll their eyes at certain things about his swagger or style. They may not like some things about how he left Jackson State or how he got to Colorado and immediately told the bad players to get lost so he could recruit better ones, which is d ‘elsewhere something that coaches have always done.
But Sanders generally operates in a world so broad that the ideological stereotypes we tend to apply to people in his position somehow distract him.
He appeals to evangelical Christians because he has probably been most revealing in his personal life about discovering his faith after contemplating suicide when he was younger. He taps into old-school sensibilities when he says, as he did this spring, that Colorado players weren’t going to be given jersey numbers until they earned them because that’s how ‘he grew up. And when he refers to being “a confident black man, sitting here, talking and walking, dragging 75 percent African-Americans into the locker room” as a threat to the establishment, he’s appealing to a large group of people – both Black and white – who know that many Black coaches have not had a fair chance to succeed.
But you’ll never really get beyond that from Sanders because, and he probably understands this as well as anyone, it’s precisely because he’s Deion Sanders that his success isn’t going to change the trajectory of the black coaches, none more than his three. years at Jackson State transformed HBCU football.
He is one of them. No one else can do what he does.
It’s natural to look at the way Sanders has taken college football by storm — a sport where the majority of players are black but the most influential coaches are overwhelmingly white — and make some assumptions about his role as an agent of change. And his affiliation with Jackson State, brief as it was, connects him in a unique way to a large portion of black fans and HBCU graduates.
But Sanders also skillfully, and probably intentionally, delivers the kind of character that is the opposite of threatening or uncomfortable. Since we don’t know much about what he actually believes in other than himself, he may be the symbol of whatever worldview you want to apply to him.
Consider this: We actually know more about Saban’s politics than Sanders’s — and the former once claimed in 2016 that he missed Election Day because he was too busy to attend attention. This is not a criticism. Whether he’s apolitical or simply deprived of what he thinks America should look like is his own business.
But as an example, Sanders faced some backlash in 2017 when he teamed up with the Koch brothers, some of the most influential donors in Republican politics, on an anti-poverty charity in Texas .
“You’re talking about a family that has one desire: to make this country a better place,” Sanders said.
One wonders how this quote might land today with much of his new fan base – not only in the black community but also in a predominantly liberal college town like Boulder – given the Kochs’ political priorities, of the programs they have financed and the associations they have financed. ‘have had.
The thing is, Sanders doesn’t really need to talk about it because he always fills the void with something much more exciting.
After Saturday’s game, for example, the big star of the Prime Show was his mother Connie. During the week, Colorado State coach Jay Norvell appeared to lash out at Sanders when he said, “When I talk to adults, I take off my hat and my glasses. That’s what my mother taught me.”
So it was a perfect way to end his locker room speech – of course broadcast around the world – when he handed the mic to his mother with The Rock nodding in the background, and she said the phrase with perfect timing: “I lifted him, it’s true!
It was hilarious, but it was also kind of mind-blowing: In the decades of watching Sanders, had you ever seen him bring his mother on camera before? But at that moment, she was the perfect character to bring into the story.
But it was also a timely reminder of why he breaks all those typical barriers and why he works simply as a personality. For a guy we’ve loved having in our lives for decades, we’ll never know much about Deion Sanders other than what benefits Coach Prime. And that’s probably how most of us would prefer it.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Dan Wolken on X @DanWolken