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The CIAA tournament is embracing a new world order

The event continues to be the nation’s most unique basketball tournament, but where does it go from here?

By 4 a.m. Sunday, the streets in downtown Charlotte, North Carolina, had cleared, the hotel lobbies had emptied and the nation’s oldest black college basketball tournament had ended.

The Johnson C. Smith women and the Bowie State University men had emerged as champions of the 72nd Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) championship.

College conferences around the country will hold their basketball championships beginning next week, but there is nothing like the CIAA tournament. The five-day celebration of basketball offered a pointed reminder of why historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) continue to occupy a unique and necessary space in the landscape of intercollegiate athletics and higher education.

This is the message HBCU presidents will carry to the White House this week when they meet with President Donald Trump and members of the president’s domestic policy team about the needs — and viability — of the nation’s historically black colleges and universities.

On Tuesday, the presidents will attend an HBCU “fly-in” at the Library of Congress, where they will present a six-point economic proposal to lawmakers and stress the importance of HBCUs.

Had lawmakers and the president’s advisers been in Charlotte over the last five days, they wouldn’t have had to be convinced: They would have seen — and felt — the cultural significance of HBCUs.

I attended Morgan State University in the late 1960s. While I was separated by generations from the HBCU students in Charlotte last week, I felt a familiar connectivity that underlined the age-old notion that there is safety, strength and power in numbers.

The CIAA tournament is a small, but an important part of an experience that answers the question: Are HBCUs still relevant? Indeed, now perhaps, more than ever.

“Why is that even a question?” said Jacqie McWilliams, the CIAA commissioner. “Why, because I want to go to an institution where professors and presidents look like me, will nurture me, will allow me to be who I am — why is that not important?”

Founded in 1912, the CIAA is the first African-American athletic conference in the United States. The CIAA tournament has become the curtain-raiser for March Madness and a gathering place for basketball junkies, loyal alums, sororities and fraternities and anyone looking for a good party.

This year’s tournament was also an economic lifesaver for the city of Charlotte, which hosted close to 150,000 CIAA visitors and could realize $55 million in related income. The city took an economic hit when the NBA, the NCAA and the Atlantic Coast Conference pulled major events out of North Carolina as a protest against the state legislature passing HB2.

The bill requires transgender men and women to use restrooms in schools and government buildings consistent with the gender on their birth certificates.

While other entities pulled out, the CIAA, driven by economic realities, remained, although the conference moved eight championships out of North Carolina to protest.

“What’s important in leadership is that you can’t get caught up in the feelings and emotions all the time,” McWilliams said. “We’re passionate about all of those things — discrimination is discrimination, whether you’re marginalizing African-Americans or marginalizing lesbians, gays and transgender.”

Critics said the CIAA stayed in Charlotte because of financial considerations — the conference received $1,481,381 from the city.

“That’s part of it, but some of it is we’re going to be true to the mission and the vision of the conference,” McWilliams said.

“We may lose fans, hotels might be down, tickets might be down, but these kids are still going to play on the court, we’re still going to be able to distribute money. We still have met our obligations without being sued.”

leadership with vision

McWilliams, who was raised in Colorado Springs, Colorado, attended her first CIAA tournament as a freshman member of the Hampton Pirates woman’s basketball team. The Pirates won the Division II national championship that year.

Over the next four seasons, McWilliams became a two-sport star at Hampton, playing volleyball and basketball. After graduation, McWilliams earned a master’s degree in sports management from Temple University.

She coached for four seasons at Virginia Union, serving as the head women’s volleyball coach and assistant men’s basketball coach, but her passion was sports administration.

She left Virginia Union for the NCAA, where she served for nearly 10 years in a number of leadership capacities. McWilliams was a member of the Division I men’s championships committee when she was hired by the CIAA as its first female commissioner.

The business of the CIAA is tied to the business of intercollegiate athletics. McWilliams’ NCAA experience allowed her to understand where HBCUs, specifically the CIAA, fit into the sprawling universe of intercollegiate athletics.

“It only fits if you make sure you are embedded in the bigger picture,” McWilliams said. “Unless you’re at the table, having those conversations, knowing where the dollars are, or where access and opportunities are, it’s hard. The problem is that most of us don’t get in the room, because there’s not a lot of us in the business.”

The NCAA is a multibillion-dollar enterprise built on big-time basketball and football — sports that at the highest level are driven largely by African-American athletes.

Before predominantly white institutions began admitting black students in significant numbers, black colleges attracted some of the greatest athletes in college sports history. Indeed, HBCUs had a monopoly on the black gold that now fuels the college sports industry.

This is an old story, but one that nonetheless haunts administrators like Williams who think of what might have been accomplished decades ago had HBCU presidents, athletic directors, politicians and community leaders anticipated and planned for desegregation.

“If we were able to recruit those kids we recruited 60, 70 years ago — whether we were together or apart — how much healthier would all HBCUs be?” she asked.

That ship has sailed, though there continues to be instances of diamonds in the rough choosing HBCUs right out of high school or transferring in after sobering experiences in majority white institutions.

During the CIAA Hall of Fame breakfast on Feb. 24, two inductees — Terry Davis, who played basketball at Virginia Union, and Richard Huntley, who played football at Winston-Salem State University, spoke of how their experiences became launching pads for successful careers.

Davis enjoyed a 12-year NBA career, and Huntley played five seasons in the NFL.

After an exhilarating week of festivities, the CIAA and its member institutions are faced with challenges of growth and expansion, survival and prosperity and the looming question: Where do we go from here? What’s next?

The CIAA is hardly alone. Every athletic conference in the nation is wrestling with the same question: how to keep up with the escalating cost of intercollegiate athletics.

Five of the nation’s most powerful conferences consolidated by forming the Power Five.

On Feb. 25, I asked McWilliams what she thought about the four HBCU conferences — CIAA, Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, the Southwestern Athletic Conference and the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference becoming a Power Four. The MEAC and SWAC have already collaborated on their own HBCU Division I national championship football game called the Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl.

“I think it’s a pretty cool concept to think about how four conferences can come together and collaborate without losing their identities,” McWilliams said. “I wouldn’t want the history of our conferences and institutions to be diluted. The question is how can we share in the wealth in some form or fashion.”

While the idea is compelling, the reality of such a super HBCU conference is complicated by distance and philosophy.

Regardless of distance or philosophy, HBCUs, for all of the challenges they face, represent a unique niche in the tapestry of intercollegiate athletics and higher education.

Conferences will expand and conferences will fall apart. This much is certain: The CIAA tournament, with a unique blend of sports and black culture, is in a league of its own.

Anyone who spent four days at the CIAA tournament will say amen to that.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.