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HBCUs recruit international athletes for tennis. Some are calling it into question

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In an effort to stay competitive in some sports, historically Black colleges and universities are diversifying their rosters. Some say that means moving away from the reason these schools were founded - to give African American students an option for higher education. Julien Virgin, with member station WABE in Atlanta, reports on the effect of international recruiting on HBCU tennis teams.

(SOUNDBITE OF TENNIS RACKETS HITTING BALLS)

JULIEN VIRGIN, BYLINE: The thud of rackets striking fluorescent yellow-green balls echoed throughout a tennis center near Atlanta during the HBCU national championship in September. Seventeen historically Black colleges and university tennis teams are competing in men's and women's singles and doubles, vying to become a national champion. But many of the players here are not African American.

ALEJANDRA HIDALGO VEGA: I always wanted to play in the U.S. because I wanted, like, a scholarship and be able to be in a university here.

VIRGIN: Alejandra Hidalgo Vega is a sophomore at North Carolina Central University. Born and raised in Madrid, Spain, she began playing tennis at the age of 6. Now she's on a full scholarship.

VEGA: I really enjoy being at NCCU. I have a lot of fun.

VIRGIN: Vega said she paid a Madrid-based recruiting service to help her land a full scholarship to an American university. Scouting athletes through third-party international sports recruiters has become a big practice in the U.S., including HBCUs. That's according to Dr. Ashleigh Brown-Grier, who studies internationalization at historically Black colleges.

ASHLEIGH BROWN-GRIER: For HBCUs, that works two ways because now we're able to retain top student athletic talent, and we're also able to diversify our student bodies.

VIRGIN: Twenty years ago, just under 6,000 international student athletes were competing at U.S. institutions. Twenty years later, that number has more than tripled, including at HBCUs. This recruitment trend does not sit well with coaches who believe in the original mission of HBCUs - to educate Black Americans.

GREGORY GREEN: We feel that there's a lot of Black students that need the opportunity to go to college and play tennis.

VIRGIN: That's Gregory Green, head tennis coach at Tuskegee University. His recruiting philosophy is simple - give Black students a chance.

GREEN: Those are the ones we recruit, and we want to keep it home. This is HBCU, and we're going to stick to that all the way through.

VIRGIN: Studies show tennis in the U.S. is diversifying. Nearly 10% of tennis players in this country are African American. And for the first time ever, four Black American players reached the quarterfinals of this year's U.S. Open.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah, Keys.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Go.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah, Keys.

(APPLAUSE)

VIRGIN: But there needs to be more talent growth, says Coach Anuk Christiansz, who leads the tennis program at Alabama State University.

ANUK CHRISTIANSZ: Tennis is an international sport. I would love to see more African Americans playing tennis and get to a level where they can play college students at the highest level.

VIRGIN: All seven players on ASU's roster are international students, most from European countries. But Christiansz says he is starting to see talented African American players.

CHRISTIANSZ: But they need to go to the next three, four levels so that they can be on par with everyone else.

VIRGIN: Christiansz's international recruiting has won the school six national championships.

(SOUNDBITE OF SNEAKERS SQUEAKING)

VIRGIN: As the landscape for collegiate athletics continues to evolve, including players getting paid for their name, image and likeness, athletic departments at HBCUs will have to find a way to balance winning at their sports with the reason why the universities were created in the first place. For NPR News, I'm Julien Virgin in Atlanta.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOS DEF SONG, "UMI SAYS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Julien Virgin