Although this is a disappointing time in intercollegiate athletics as many fall and winter sports are either being postponed or canceled due to COVID-19, the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA), the nation’s oldest historically Black athletic conference, has been keeping students and student-athletes engaged with esports. The conference is partnering with CSL Esports, a provider of esports opportunities and The Yard: HBCU Esports Alliance (HEA), a diversity and inclusion initiative, to offer competitive gaming and educational opportunities for its member institutions.

“Our goal is to have some synergy around STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and esports, creating programs at our institutions, getting our institutions engaged and getting students engaged in seeing that we need more Black and Brown participants,” said Jacqie McWilliams, CIAA commissioner.

Through HEA, CSL Esports will serve as the CIAA’s provider for Madden, NBA 2K and other gaming titles and begin offering exclusive competitive gaming opportunities to CIAA students starting in the spring 2021 semester. HEA will offer two esports master classes. There will be mentorships and internships as well as exposure to job opportunities in esports.

“We don’t silo our partnerships just for students to play,” said McWilliams. “There’s a growth opportunity and it provides exposure for students in our conference.”

The CIAA has also partnered with esports league provider PlayVS, a leader in the scholastic esports industry, on competitive gaming opportunities.

Also, student-athletes from the CIAA recently joined other HBCU students for the 2020 NFL HBCU Careers in Football Forum, which was held virtually this year. Individuals who work in diverse areas of the sports industry shared their experiences. Everything from soft skills, such as communication, to leadership to officiating were discussed.

“Our students had the opportunity to get this great exposure with these professionals,” said McWilliams, who took part in a panel with other conference commissioners. “We gave what a day in the life of a commissioner in the collegiate space really looks like, Divisions I and II. Giving some practical information and advice for them.

“Most of us who have been in the profession for 30 years wish that we had had an opportunity to be part of this type of platform,” she added. “There are different avenues [for young people] no matter what their major is in college. …You have to find your niche, your mission and where you fit. College and Division II are my fit.”

In early December, the CIAA officially canceled its basketball tournament for the first time in its history. McWilliams looks toward better times in 2021. Coming together with the MEAC and SWAC (D I conferences of HBCUs) for the NFL event was uplifting.

“Our communities came together for the same mission that’s to give access and opportunity to Black and Brown students who want to be in this career field, to help with the pipeline,” said McWilliams. “I love the diversity of our partners.”