HBCUs Are Recruiting International Tennis Players, But It Hasn’t Come Without Controversy

HBCUs Are Recruiting International Tennis Players, But It Hasn’t Come Without Controversy | Marc Debnam
HBCUs Are Recruiting International Tennis Players, But It Hasn’t Come Without Controversy | Marc Debnam

HBCUs are diversifying their roster of student-athletes to shine on a national level. Such is the case with tennis, a sport that has remained predominantly white in global competitions despite recent rising figures like Coco Gauff and Ben Shelton.

Alejandra Hidalgo Vega, a North Carolina Central University sophomore, is currently on full scholarship with the institution. Born and raised in Madrid, Spain, she is the current Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference rookie of the year.

“I always wanted to play in the U.S. because I want to, like, a scholarship and be able to, you know, be in a university here,” she told WABE. “I really enjoy being in HBCU — I have a lot of fun.”

Before moving to the United States, Vega did not know African-American culture. HBCUs are unique to the country, and for international students, the U.S. presents a one-of-a-kind opportunity for their advancement in sports and their careers. Collegiate sports are not given the same sponsorship, public platform and recognition in Europe. Athletes gain widespread recognition and benefit from professional training when they join the national leagues — just like 19-year-old Victor Wembanyama did as he recently joined the San Antonio Spurs.

Vega paid a Spain-based recruiting service, All American Athletics, to help her receive a scholarship in the U.S. She isn’t the only one. According to the NCAA, over 24,000 international student-athletes are across all three divisions. This number jumped from the late 1990s. There were under 6,000 international student-athletes competing in 1999-2000.

For HBCUs, recruiting athletes through third-party international recruiters is a way of diversifying their student bodies while retaining athletic talent. This makes sense for Anuk Christiansz, head tennis coach at Alabama State University. His roster of athletes includes students from countries such as France, Slovenia and the United Kingdom.

“Tennis is an international sport,” he told WABE. “I would love to see more African Americans playing tennis and get to a level where they can play college tennis at the highest level… But they need to go to the next three, four levels so that they can be on par with everyone else.”

Christainsz noted that anyone would want the best talent in a competitive environment. He has won six national championships and has coached 31 All-Americans.

For other professionals, recruiting international athletes — in particular, non-Black ones — is diverting from the very mission of HBCUs. 

“We feel that there’s a lot of Black students that need the opportunity to go to college and play tennis,” Gregory Green, head tennis coach at Tuskegee University, told the radio station. “Those are the ones we recruit. And we want to keep it home. This is an HBCU, and we’re going to stick to that all the way through.”

Green has four international students on the roster, but all are Black and hail from African countries.

“There’s no need for me to bring a kid in from Ireland or Switzerland or [Norway] because they’re not helping our community,” he added. “And that’s one of the main missions of HBCUs was to provide our kids the opportunity to be great.”

HBCUs were created to provide exemplary education to Black and African Americans as a response to systemic racial inequalities and oppression. Cheyney University of Pennsylvania was the very first HBCU to be founded in 1837 while slavery was still legal across the country. Today, these institutions provide Black students with a sense of safety and community and strive toward excellence. They have championed the advancement of the Black community in the U.S. through education and Greek life.

International recruitment is a new phenomenon for these institutions, according to Green. He started his career in the 1990s at Savannah State University and said HBCUs weren’t looking to Europe to add to their rosters.

“I don’t know why they started going [with] so much of the student-athletes that don’t look like us,” Green said. “I don’t know why. You should ask Alabama State.”