Interest in Black women athletic directors increases across HBCUs

Recently appointed female administrators discuss their experience progressing through the MEAC.

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Edwin Moore

Over the past few years, there has been an increase in the number of women athletic directors in the MEAC.

Trae Mitchell, Managing Editor

For years, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has faced questions about its treatment of women athletes and administrators.

However, many institutions in the Mid-Eaastern Atlantic Conference (MEAC) have attempted to ensure equity by appointing women as athletic directors of their sports programs. 

Morgan State University is now presented with the opportunity to join other MEAC institutions by appointing a woman athletic director.

Erlease Wagner, athletic administrator at Morgan State University for over six years, was appointed as interim athletic director in January 2022. Since then, Wagner has worked to fill the void left by the departure of her predecessor Edward Scott.

“[I’ve had] a lot of conversations, a lot of dialogue with campus constituents, athletic department supporters, student athletes and staff and really it’s been about conversations, talking to people about where we are, what we’re trying to do,” said Wagner.

However, this is not the first time Wagner has served as interim athletic director.

Wagner came to the university in 2015 under Floyd Kerr, Morgan’s athletic director from 2005 to 2016, and served as the assistant athletic director for compliance.

When Kerr announced his retirement, Wagner stepped in as interim director for some months as the university searched for its permanent athletic director.

Then, in October 2016, Scott assumed the position.

However, at the time, Morgan was facing heavy scrutiny for improper student-athlete eligibility and financial aid.

In her role as assistant athletic director, Wagner began developing programs and building relationships with athletes to address specific student needs.

“When I first came, we focused on compliance education for student-athletes, the coaching staff, then I was able to have some influence in the nutrition program for our student-athletes,” she said.

“When I arrived, there was only one person that worked in that [the student-athlete support service] space. And I arrived and then Dr. Scott added an additional about five to six people.”

After Scott added more support to student-athlete support services, Wagner said the athletic department was able to improve the Morgan athletic experience.

Wagner said she never felt devalued because of her gender during her time serving under Kerr and Scott. 

“They were not leaders that dismissed my voice, But I would say they were more champions of women leaders and women in athletics,” she said. “And so they were active in promoting women’s involvement and effort in the athletic space.”

This positive attitude towards leadership in athletics is not exclusive to Morgan but permeates through the entire conference.

Over the past few years, there has been an increase in the number of women athletic directors in the MEAC with two of its institutions led by women; Norfolk State University and Coppin State University.

The MEAC also recently named Sonja Stills as its commissioner, the highest administrative position in the conference.

Wagner said she would be interested in applying for the permanent position, but the university has not posted the official position yet.

Wagner thinks the increase in the number of women athletic directors in the MEAC is a result of a push from women and men within the conference.

“There’s been a push to see more women in leadership roles, especially by women who are currently in those roles pushing to bring more women along into that space, ” said Wagner. “I think there’s also male leaders that are champions of women in leadership that are also pushing women into that leadership role.”

“It’s special when a young woman who’s participating in a sport can look and see an administrator that looks like her,” said Wagner. “It’s so [that] women can see women advance and understand that there’s an opportunity for them in that space if they would like to pursue it.

The journey for many women ascending to higher athletic administration roles begins during their undergraduate years. 

Melody Webb started her career as a student-athlete at Savannah State University. There, she played volleyball for four years while pursuing her bachelor’s in accounting. The knowledge she gained during accounting propelled her into her career in athletic administration.

“I didn’t know anything about athletics as it relates to the business side or the business aspect of it, but [I] just kind of really [focused] on moving things ahead and moving forward”, said Webb.“I love sports. I love numbers. I was able to mix both and how to perfect a body of work.”

After graduating, she served as assistant athletic director for business at George Washington University, business manager at the University of Maryland, and associate athletic director at Elizabeth State University.

She later became the associate commissioner for business operations at the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA.)

In April 2014, Webb became the assistant athletic director of Norfolk State University. There, she managed financial operations and external relations. Under her supervision, the department saw over $2 million in renovations.

Webb often found herself as the only Black person with a seat at the table at many points in her career. 

She said, “When I got to a couple of the universities I went to a lot larger than the university I’m currently at, I was one a few in the room. So you’re talking about a staff at 200. You [are] talking about less than 10 Blacks that’s in administration.”

“It’s constantly proving yourself [to others] that you belong there,” she said. “Proving that [you belong] and I’m just as qualified as the rest of y’all.”

Like Webb, Alecia Shields-Gadson, athletic director at Delaware State University since December 2021, began her career in collegiate athletics as a student-athlete.

Shields-Gadson began her journey in Division 1 athletics almost 25 years ago as a track and field athlete at Southern University Baton Rouge.

After graduating, Shields-Gadson pursued her master’s in education at Alcorn State University. She later became the head coach of track and field cross country for men and women. 

As Shields-Gadson grew more confident in her navigation through athletics as a Black woman, she began to look towards a career in administration.

“I’ve always tried to keep everything aspirational and keep the goal in front of me. So okay, how am I going to persevere,” she said. “I’m not gonna let anything or anyone stop me from getting to where I want to get.”

Shields-Gadson’s perseverance protected her discouragement about her goals. Though she stayed determined, she faced times when she doubted herself.

“Sometimes though, I can say personally that there weren’t jobs or opportunities that I was seeing and I wouldn’t apply for [it] because if they had 10 things listed, I would say I got about seven but I don’t have all 10 You know.”

Shields-Gadson felt though she may be more qualified compared to her male counterparts, the apprehension to apply for a job seemingly out of her league would only affect her.

She said, “I think a lot of times I have lived experiences where my male counterparts do not. They can literally have two of the qualifications to still say, ‘Hey, I’m gonna fly.’”

Shields-Gadson eventually overcame this doubt and pushed herself to progress in her field.

She later became senior associate athletic director at Alcorn State, the deputy director of athletics at Coppin State, and senior associate director of athletics for Delaware State before becoming their AD.

Shields-Gadson said though she grappled with her own obstacles, she always felt support from the other male and female administrators in her conference.

“I can definitely say all of the AD’s have respected the females that were in those roles and even as females raised to the level of AD it is still respecting the role of the SWA [Senior Woman Administrator] and really giving it weight giving it power,” she said. 

“[They have been] making sure that they’re seated at the table, making sure that you know, they’re involved in those big decisions. 

Wagner, Webb and Shields-Gadson continue to pave the way for a new generation of aspiring women athletic leaders. The MEAC continues to set the stage for other conferences to follow suit.