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Inclusion Insights: Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association

Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association photo

With 12 historically black colleges and universities in the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association, Commissioner Jacqie McWilliams says, diversity and inclusion aren’t just initiatives — they are part of the conference’s DNA.

The Genesis: The CIAA was confronted with a new reality when the North Carolina General Assembly convened a special session to reverse a Charlotte, North Carolina, ordinance that extended some rights to people who are gay or transgender. Suddenly, McWilliams realized, the conference’s good intentions weren’t good enough; it had to figure out a way to make its ideas contagious.

Jacqie McWilliams, Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association commissioner. Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association photo

“House Bill 2 really created a space for us to think differently on how we can be part of the solution and not the problem,” McWilliams says of the state legislation commonly known as the bathroom bill. “We can all leave a place where we don’t feel accepted, but how do we stay, be the example and educate people on how they
can accept us?”

First Steps: The CIAA hired Nevin Caple, a diversity consultant who has worked with the NCAA national office, to visit the conference’s member schools and begin conversations about LGBTQ inclusion. “For a lot of our students, particularly in HBCUs or in black communities, LGBTQ is not a conversation that we have had or know how to have without feeling isolated,” McWilliams says. “I think Nevin has been able to get on campuses and open up the door. She meets everybody where they are to give them some best practices to
help guide them.”

Caple says the biggest obstacle she has encountered in her conversations with coaches and athletics administrators is fear. “I don’t focus on changing values and beliefs,” Caple says. “Instead, I try to help coaches, administrators and student-athletes know I’m on their side and feel safe enough to open up to me and start thinking about how their behaviors can be more inclusive of everyone in the athletics department.”

The Culture Now: McWilliams is proud of the conversations that occur in her conference and that those conversations occur between all races, nationalities and genders. But she says there is more work to do. Currently, the conference is focusing on mental health as an inclusion priority and educating campuses on how to combat the stigma so everyone can feel valued.

“Student-athletes love that the conference is leading in this space, and they hope that some of their institutions will continue to follow the work,” McWilliams says. “Some of our schools are doing really well. And some of our schools are still trying to figure it out in their own communities.”


Don’t Get Discouraged

My Advice | By Nevin Caple | as told to Emily Weisman

Nevin Caple is a diversity consultant who has worked with the NCAA national office and the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association, among others. Submitted by Nevin Caple

Many athletics programs are diverse, but not all are inclusive in the sense that everyone feels valued in the space. Inclusion requires action, specifically for coaches and administrators to take the time to listen, build trust and cultivate relationships across differences, even when they don’t fully understand or agree. This creates a sense of belonging and unity among the team, as student-athletes won’t thrive unless there is a trusting relationship between the coach and the student-athlete.

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Invite a facilitator or consultant to campus to train the staff and student-athletes. If possible, make programming mandatory to ensure all coaches, administrators, athletics staff and student-athletes have access to education to do their jobs more effectively and uphold institutional values. Inclusion is a process, and each day presents an opportunity to be better.

When student-athletes see a commitment from leadership, they will help guide the process. Understand the power dynamic at play between coaches and student-athletes. We have to move our coaches along the continuum and at least get them to a place where they are comfortable having these basic but important conversations.

Find the individuals in the athletics department who are passionate about improving the culture, and start the conversation. Create a proposal outlining the case for inclusion. Center the experiences around the student-athletes, as they are not only the reason why we are here, but the most vulnerable members of the athletics community.