As March’s battles for the NAIA national titles are fed by the intense competition of February, Black History Month, National Girls and Women in Sports Day and Women’s History Month also hold spots in that two-month swing.
The NAIA has a long history of support and advocacy in these areas from some of the biggest names in the game’s history to many less known.
The Young Wizard
Before Coach John Wooden became an American icon, he was head coach at Indiana State Teachers College — now Indiana State — and decided it was time for a change.
First, he added Clarence Walker to his roster, making him the first player of color in collegiate basketball history. Racial segregation continued to infiltrate the world of sports, as this was the same year that Jackie Robinson broke into the MLB as its first player of color in the history of professional sports. Wooden also refused to participate in the National Association of Intercollegiate Basketball (now the NAIA) Championships until the ban against players of color was removed.
That next spring, Walker again made history when he stepped onto the court to play in the championship. During that same year, three other NAIB colleges expressed support for athletes of color joining the college basketball scene, considering the champion of the NAIB Tournament would be one of eight teams invited to the Olympic Trials. Since the Olympics had been more open to participation of athletes of color well before the United States agreed to move forward, it was time for the US to catch up with the rest of the world. Black athletes had brought medals home from the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, but it wouldn’t be until 1948 that the first American basketball player of color was sent to the Olympics to represent Team USA.
The NAIA was also a pioneer in inclusivity and equality on yet another platform.
Breaking Racial Barriers
In 1953, it became the first college athletics organization to invite historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to become members. Prior to this, HBCUs were separated from joining member conferences outside of the Colored Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, now more commonly known as the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (CIAA). The CIAA was established in 1912 to connect teams and standardize play between HBCUs. Racial segregation and inequality restricted funding to the CIAA until they were invited to join the NAIA, opening financial opportunities and a more diversified schedule for HBCUs to not only play each other but also predominantly white institutions (PWIs). The NCAA followed suit in 1957.
The NAIA’s landmark decision led to Tennessee A&I State (now Tennessee State) to receive membership in the Independent Conference. The Tennessee State A&I Tigers became the first HBCU basketball team to win a national championship, grabbing two more in a row from 1956-1959. The three consecutive titles had never been accomplished by any other collegiate basketball team and the Tigers were inducted into the National Basketball Hall of Fame in 2019.
Today, there are 16 HBCUs in the NAIA, spanning the Red River Athletic Conference (RRAC), Continental Athletic Conference (Independent), American Midwest Conference (AMC), Sun Conference and the only all-HBCU conference – the Gulf Coast Athletic Conference (GCAC).
When it comes to equality, women were not left out of this equation within the NAIA. Yes, there were women’s college basketball teams and tournaments operating for decades until 1971 when the American Intercollegiate Association for Women (AIAW) was established to provide a national footing to the hodgepodge of women’s college teams that emerged throughout the 1960s. At one point the sport was called “netball,” with very different rules than today’s modern game. The promising Title IX was passed in 1972, only proving an uphill battle for equal rights on the college sports platform for women with lack of federal funding opportunities that were mandated to provide equally to men and women. As the AIAW was operating on a shoestring budget, the NCAA resisted Title IX and fought it until the federal courts intervened in 1978.
The trailblazing NAIA was the first to comply with treating women as equals to male athletes. On August 1, 1980, the NAIA made an unprecedented decision to establish and recognize women’s basketball — among other sports — as an intercollegiate sport equal with male counterparts. The 1980-81 season of the NAIA represented the birth of the women’s National Tournament where Kentucky State beat Texas Southern 73-64 in Kansas City. The NCAA followed in 1982 with its inaugural NCAA women’s tournament and, by this time, around 80 percent of the AIAW programs had become members of the NCAA, ending the AIAW’s short run.
From the inception of including women’s sports in 1980, the NAIA has treated both men’s and women’s teams equally financially with the same amount of scholarships devoted to both, the National Tournament being the same for both genders and the services and budgets allotted to both mirrored, respecting both with the same integrity and equity.
Just last year the NCAA caught up, renaming the women’s tournament March Madness as well providing equal facilities, open practices and financial gift allotments following national outcry when female athletes called the treatment out.
NAIA Paved the Way for Others
Today, because of the NAIA’s continued narrative of commitment to providing all student-athletes equal opportunities, hundreds of thousands of athletes from diverse backgrounds have had the opportunity to compete.
The NAIA’s rich history of inclusion and equality has paved the way for its counterparts and serves as an example to all its student-athletes with expectations of commitment to sport, character, leadership, and equity.
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