By Ed Hill, Jr.
In a day and time of change, with women taking more prominent roles in the world of college athletics, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) has become a national leader and trendsetter. When Sonja O. Stills was appointed the first female commissioner of the MEAC, it was unprecedented.
But that was only the beginning.
“The MEAC is clearly showing that female leaders are the norm and that given the opportunity, we will rise to the occasion,” Stills said. “What an amazing way to show the progress of Title IX during its 50th anniversary.”
The conference, made up of eight Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), currently has five women serving as athletic directors: Tara A. Owens (Maryland Eastern Shore); Alecia Shields-Gadson (Delaware State); Melody Webb (Norfolk State); Dena Freeman-Patton (Morgan State) and Keshia Campbell (South Carolina State).
“There is no excuse why an organization or institution cannot find a diverse pool of talented and experienced women of color who can lead in a male-dominated field,” Stills said. “I am extremely proud to be surrounded by such wonderful women who share in the vision of the conference.”
The “Fabulous Five” have had similar journeys, but they also differ in the circumstances prompting their decisions.
In September 2022, Owens became Maryland Eastern Shore’s Director of Athletics after four years in the same role at Central State University.
“I served as a coach for 18 years and I decided I wanted to do something different,” Owens said. “I wanted to do something to change the perspective of women and the roles that they play in a profession that is traditionally male-dominated. I wanted to be in a position where women were not just someone at the table but in a position of decision making in the hiring and policy-making and to show young women that we can.”
In August 2021, Shields-Gadson was appointed by Delaware State President Dr. Tony Allen as the university’s Director of Intercollegiate Athletics. Previously, she served in an interim capacity, and she has more than 30 years of experience in intercollegiate athletics as a senior-level administrator and head coach.
“It is certainly something to celebrate,” Shields-Gadson said. “Not just because we are women in this position, but because we are Black women. It is important visually that we represent so that young women coming after us can see that it is possible. Through all my experiences in athletics, I finally decided that it is important to have a voice at the table, and there is nothing more powerful or effective than an athletic director. I made my decision to pursue this as a career when I attended Institute at NACWA, and it helped me make this decision.”
Webb was appointed to the position of Athletics Director at Norfolk State on July 1, 2020, after serving for six years at the institution as Senior Associate Athletics Director for Administration and Senior Woman Administrator. She became the ninth athletics director in Spartans history and the first woman to hold the role.
“It signifies a real opportunity to change the course of how women are viewed in athletics,” Webb said. “The invisible biases and barriers with women in leadership still exist, but we are slowly shifting the landscape in college athletics. It’s great to be part of history and exciting to be amongst powerful women.”
On May 3, 2022, Morgan State President David K. Wilson announced the appointment of Dena Freeman-Patton as the new Vice President and Director for Intercollegiate Athletics. With her selection, Freeman-Patton became the first woman in Morgan State’s 155-year history hired to lead its athletic operations. She assumed her new role on June 1, 2022.
As an administrator and executive in intercollegiate athletics, Freeman-Patton brings nearly 25 years of experience.
“It is certainly something special to celebrate,” Freeman-Patton said. “Here we are, Black women sitting at the table in Division I. One of the things that I came to realize is that it’s just not good to have a seat at the table, but the biggest seat at the table. That is how we affect change.
She adds that visuals are important in this day and time of change in the landscape of athletics and that “it is important that young women of color see us in these positions of decision-making”.