Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) Championships are a cultural explosion of live music, local food, and highly-competitive sports. As the nation’s oldest historically Black athletic conference, it’s a time of celebration. And for conference commissioner Jacqie McWilliams, the event is all about bringing the community together. 

“I have a heart for community and service,” said McWilliams, who’s in her ninth season as commissioner. “I’m my best self when I can give back. So it’s nice that I’ve been able to bring that part of me as the leader of this conference.” 

The first CIAA Basketball Championship Tournament was held in 1946 in Washington, D.C. on a shoestring budget of $500. The gym had a maximum capacity of 2,000 people, but 3,000 fans hung from the rafters cheering on their favorite HBCU athletes. Since then, it’s been a rally for Black excellence with the likes of NBA greats Earl “The Pearl” Monroe and Ben Wallace cycling through. It’s been a community hub for the last 76 years. 

“We want to restore that history,” McWilliams said. “We want people to understand that when there was nowhere else to go, CIAA was the place. It was our safe place.”

This year’s basketball tournament takes place in Baltimore February 21-26, and as McWilliams gears up for the season’s exclamation point, she can’t help but reminisce about when she too was playing in the CIAA championship atmosphere. “I guess I was good,” McWilliams said with a laugh. 

“Good” is an understatement. The tenacious, small-but-mighty athlete competed in two sports at Hampton University when the Pirates were members of the CIAA. McWilliams was a part of the 1988 NCAA DII women’s basketball championship team and earned Player of the Year for CIAA volleyball in 1990. 

“I often say that if I didn’t have the opportunity to play sports, I don’t know if I would be here. I don’t know if I would be the same person. There’s just something about sport that creates a positive community for girls,” McWilliams said. In addition to being a student-athlete for the conference, she was a coach and compliance administrator too. “It really provides us an opportunity to see ourselves in bigger spaces.”

Now, nearly 35 after graduating from Hampton, she runs the show. “To work for this conference and then try to create at least the same feeling and experience that I had as a student-athlete, I want them to cherish the moments of winning or losing in the CIAA. There’s something unique and special about it,” McWilliams said. “I get to do that because of my own experience playing since I was 18. And now being a commissioner at almost 53, it’s like a circle.”

When she was hired in 2012, McWilliams became the first female commissioner for CIAA and the first appointed Black commissioner out of 100 conferences in NCAA Division I, II and III. She may have been the first, but she made it her mission to not be the last. There are currently three other Black women serving as commissioners in conferences around the country, and they are mentees of McWilliams. She even passed along her prep materials when they went through the interview process. 

“I’m pleased to say that I’m not the only one at this point. I hope that I can leave footprints and I can do work where the board and other people will always value bringing in a woman, a woman of color in this position,” McWilliams adds, going on to say her main goal was to make a difference for a conference that was so impressionable in her own life. “If today was my last day, I hope that everything that I’ve done, I’ve made a difference in somebody’s life.”

As a player, McWilliams was fierce and played to win. “And now I love the sport to play and win a different way,” she explained. “Winning in your community, winning to provide opportunities, and winning to give access.”