By Micha Green,
AFRO D.C. and Digital Editor
In a few short weeks Charm City will host the 76th Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) Tournament, ushering in important athletic, political, career and social events for young people to seasoned adults. While the celebration’s official kickoff date is Feb. 22, CIAA Commissioner Jacqie McWilliams told the AFRO there will be events to get the CIAA party and tournament started a whole week before any institution will be going toe-to-toe for the coveted championship trophy. After missing a year of an in-person tournament, McWilliams, the CIAA team, hundreds of thousands of fans and supporters and, most important, the student athletes, are ready for the week of basketball, educational opportunities, service projects, performances and fun.
“It’s 365 days of planning, but really it’s been more than that because we hadn’t been able to get to Baltimore. Last year we had the virtual tournament so that we can stay connected to the community and relevant and continue to tell our stories, and the team has been working diligently since then to get ready for the tournament that’s coming up in less than 20 days,” Commissioner McWilliams said. “We’re all anxious, everybody’s excited. We have concerns in the sense of, we want to make sure that we put in the proper protocols to put this tournament on and make people feel good about coming,” she added.
Despite optimistic thoughts of a COVID-free tournament in 2022, after vaccinations and lowering coronavirus rates, Omicron reared its highly contagious head, requiring some changes to the original plans.
“Now that Omicron came, we’re having to shift a little bit,” McWilliams said.
“We work in sports, so we can change the play however we need to,” the former CIAA athlete-turned-president aptly added.
For McWilliams, the first priority in pivoting has been the students who spend their whole lives prepping for their CIAA moment.
“Most important to me has been the student athletes, the venue is ready for them to play, that we put in the protocols that they are safe, and we put the right people around them to make sure that they’re safe so that they can have a great experience. The Championship means everything to every student athlete that plays in the CIAA. I played in the CIAA. If you can’t win a CIAA Tournament, it’s like disappointing for life, so at the end of the day we start in the venue and move out to all the spectacular things that are going on,” the Commissioner said.
Having accounted for the players’ and venue safety, updated protocols and mandated masks, the Commissioner said the week is fun-filled with several daily activities that will allow for Tournament attendees to safely attend the games as well as engage with the packed programming that offer tools, outlets and resources important to the Black community.
“To engage our community, knowing that we’re in Baltimore, the virtual pivot was huge for us,” she said. “What’s going to happen if we can’t be in person? The relevancy in making sure that people feel connected to something. It’s Black History Month. Our tournament is at the end of the month, where people can come celebrate and reconnect. It’s a family reunion. So you had all these spaces in the virtual tournament, still allowing for connections, but not in the same way. We’ll do a hybrid this year. We’ll have the virtual platform, but we’ll also have in-person events. There’ll be a lot of in-person events, but we’ll also pipe those into the virtual.”
In addition to the basketball games, performances and parties, the CIAA will be offering educational resources for physical, mental and women’s health, Hall of Fame celebrations, the Career Expo and its annual service project.
“With Samaritan’s Feet, we’ll do the community work and deliver shoes at a local elementary school not too far from downtown Baltimore. We did that last year with Bowie State University, we distributed 500 shoes within the community, working with Samaritan’s Feet as our partners,” Commissioner McWilliams said.
“The things that are important to us will never end,” she emphasized. “We’ll keep doing it, even if we have to do it differently. We’re very good at pivoting. Is it a lot of work? Absolutely.”
However, the hard work of changing the play, still can lead to a big win, at least that’s what McWilliams expects from this year’s tournament.
“CIAA is of value to the economics in Baltimore. We can’t put our hand or finger on what we think those numbers will be this year, but we have people coming to the community, folks who’ve never been there, who want to come to the Tournament. It’s great exposure for the city, it’s great exposure for the community, and the way that we engage in the community, it allows for people to value all 12 of our member institutions,” McWilliams said. “And most definitely we want to recruit in Baltimore and the DMV area. We want these students to see CIAA as a platform. We’re a platform for 12 member institutions, and really for HBCUs. Anytime any of our Conferences that hold big events, like the Celebration Bowl, we’re all tapped into that. We support each other, we celebrate each other and it really gives us an opportunity to really gain exposure for HBCUs across the world. CIAA has that platform.”
In addition to the important public exposure gained through the CIAA offers, the Tournament is often a moment to offer opportunities for the next generation of basketball stars, CEOs and thought leaders.
“You talk about Sports, and politics, and community. Sports have always been an avenue, throughout the history of this country to lead, and HBCUs have been always in this country to lead in sports. And CIAA has left great impressions, we have Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, that played at Winston Salem State on the first Division II National Championship Team, he will be part of the experience. He’s been part of the experience since Day one, when Baltimore came to take the Tournament, and same thing with Bobby Dandridge. We’ll do a Sports Clinic the Saturday prior, so that we can speak to these youth, give life to these youth, give them all these opportunities and accesses that they have, not just in the CIAA, but throughout life,” McWilliams said. “We all did it, we used the CIAA to get us there. I was a CIAA athlete, I played in the game, and here I am some years later, since 1991 when I graduated, now the Commissioner. So I think CIAA is important for jobs, access, and opportunity.”
Finally, with COVID-19 still plaguing the world and hitting Black communities hard, the Commissioner emphasized that it is up to all Tournament attendees to do their due diligence to keep others safe.
“We’ll be wearing masks and that’s not an option. People will need to wear masks at all of our events. We take it very seriously. Our community is impacted by COVID at the highest rates, so we have a responsibility,” she said. “If we’re going to have an event of this magnitude, then we need to make sure that people are following the protocols and being good players. We need everybody to be a part of the team so we can win.”
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