MURFREESBORO, N.C. — When tiny Chowan University moved up to Division II a few years ago, it knew it needed the stability that comes with joining a conference.
So the private, predominantly white Baptist school of about 900 students in northeast North Carolina shopped around for a league for its football program. One by one — either because of geography, sport selection or a simple unwillingness to expand — several possible homes for the Hawks were cast aside.
Meanwhile, its most unlikely host emerged as the best fit — the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association. The nation’s oldest league for historically black colleges and universities next season will welcome Chowan’s football team.
Call it the colorblind conference.
“We’re being visionaries,” Chowan athletic director Dennis Helsel said. “We’re probably doing something that is not in the mainstream of North Carolina.”
Or, for that matter, in college sports across the country. The first predominantly white college to join a conference typically reserved for historically black colleges and universities is an unprecedented marriage spurred by location and several CIAA defectors who left for the lower levels of Division I.
“The color of power is green,” league commissioner Leon Kerry said. “I’m trying to build teams, I’m trying to add teams, I’m trying to keep the CIAA successful. What’s going to make the CIAA successful today? Imagination and the willingness to make things different, and I think it’s far past the time to make things different. … Because the school’s not an HBCU, do you overlook that school? Absolutely not.”
Still, the history-making move was met with some skepticism. Critics wondered if Chowan would re-brand itself as an HBCU (it won’t) or if the switch might start a trend to change the composition of other historically black leagues.
“One person (said), ‘Look what happened to the Negro League,’” Helsel said. “Is this a harbinger of eliminating historically black (conferences)? And to those, I’m saying no. This is sports.
“In sports, we’re not providing what the charter was, which was to educate African-Americans in an integral system that provided cultural backgrounds and historical backgrounds. No college, no matter how much they try, duplicates that culture experience. … Chowan’s still not going to provide (that) culture.”
The move has been welcomed by leaders from black schools and conferences, with Southwestern Athletic Conference interim commissioner Duer Sharp calling it “a sign of progress” and Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference commissioner Dennis Thomas praising Kerry for his direction.
“I don’t think (a conference) should be about what color the school is, because the world is not like that anymore,” said Winston-Salem State athletic director Percy Caldwell, whose school recently left the league for Division I and the MEAC.
He also called it a shrewd business decision because it exposes black college sports to a wider audience.
“In the long run, that could be perhaps good for the conference, because now you get another segment of the population involved,” he said.