HBCU Sports Set for Huge Growth. These 5 Women Are Leading the Way.

In the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference — home to eight HBCUs — the majority of athletic directors are women. Here's how they're maintaining their conference's momentum while helping other women step up to leadership roles in college sports.
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  • HBCU sports are catching national attention in more ways than one, including the MEAC's historic female-dominated leadership.
  • The "Fabulous Five" athletic directors are adding more voices to the NCAA's table.
  • They are hoping for their programs to gain more visibility on a national level and for their respective states' stakeholders to support HBCUs.

Conferences in college athletics can be known for their spirit, their mascots, or their unique game day traditions. The Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) has all that and more, but it's also now known for having five women athletic directors in its ranks.

The conference of eight historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) has five women serving as athletic directors:

  • Melody Webb, Norfolk State University
  • Alecia Shields-Gadson, Delaware State University
  • Dena Freeman-Patton, Morgan State University
  • Keshia Campbell, South Carolina State University
  • Tara A. Owens, University of Maryland Eastern Shore

"That's unheard of, you'll never find another conference that has that. Not one," Freeman-Patton told BestColleges.

Although these five women are ready to "smash each other competitively," they share a drive to dispel the myth that the field of athletic directors is a "male-dominated club."

"Women have just as much knowledge and leadership expertise and that we can actually sit at the table and be a part of the solution and changes we hope to see in athletics," Shields-Gadson told Best Colleges.

They also share a passion for advancing HBCUs and their sports teams.

"What you are seeing now is just the beginning of what's going to happen," Owens told BestColleges about the future of HBCU sports.

Longtime Leaders, Unique Paths

Today, they're being called the "Fabulous Five," but these five women each took different paths to their respective roles at MEAC institutions.

It started with Webb, who became the first woman to serve as Norfolk State's athletic director in July 2020. In her first year, the men's basketball and baseball teams secured MEAC championship titles, and student-athletes earned an overall GPA of 3.15, the highest in department history.

In August 2021, Shields-Gadson joined Delaware State as athletic director with nearly 30 years of experience in collegiate athletics as a senior-level administrator and a head coach of track and field.

Baltimore native Freeman-Patton returned home to Morgan State in June 2022 as vice president and athletic director. Freeman-Patton was appointed as chair of the NCAA Minority Opportunities and Interests Committee in 2020 and was named Women Leader in College Sports Administrator of the Year in 2018.

Campbell, a prior MEAC player of the year and a South Carolina State Hall of Famer, returned to her alma mater as acting athletic director in August. She is only the second woman to serve as athletic director in school history.

Finally, Owens rounded out the five in September, taking over as the University of Maryland Eastern Shore's athletic director after serving in the same role at Central State University, an HBCU in Ohio.

Adding Diverse Voices to Collegiate Athletics

In interviews with BestColleges, each member of the Fabulous Five said having women leadership in college athletics departments is a critical step toward adding diverse voices to collegiate athletics.

"The table should really reflect who we serve and represent," said Owens. "I think there is nothing that would happen, besides elevation, if you were to add women to your table.

Freeman-Patton pointed to leadership in the NCAA institutions, which is composed of 350 Division I universities. In 2022, only 53 of the 350 athletic directors who serve those institutions were women. Only 11 of those 53 women, just over 3%, were Black women.

"Any time you have that diversity and that equity, meaning they're not just at the table but they have a voice, you get a better outcome in any situation. We are a part of that outcome," Freeman-Patton said about the impact of representation and the women serving as athletic directors in the MEAC.

Their position as athletic directors also allows them to make a greater impact on the athletes at their universities, the MEAC, and HBCUs in general. This extends to hiring equitably, connecting with all student-athletes equally, and serving as a visual representation for future leaders.

"You have the ability to reach back and hire a student who played for you, or a student who went to the institution, and give them the experience so they can start early. Before you know it, you'll be looking at another female athletic director," Owens said.

The MEAC athletic directors recognized the importance of being a visual representation "of what Black women can do."

"As far as being a Black female leader, I think it's very important that we set an example for those who will come behind us. It's important that little girls of color see women in leadership, whether it's leading an athletics department or leading a corporation," Campbell said.

"I'm a Black female, but I also realize that I'm not just a visual representation for other Black females," Freeman-Patton said. "I'm a visual representation for women of other ethnicities, men, boys, who look like me or are minorities, or not … It means a lot for [all of] them to see that a Black woman can do the things that I'm able to do and that I'm able to be in this seat."

Keeping HBCU Sports Momentum Moving Forward

HBCU athletics have been gaining momentum for years — with record-breaking programs, teams, and individual athletes, high-profile coaches, and skyrocketing attendance.

In 2019, Norfolk State upset powerhouse Alabama in the NIT Tournament, which Webb said harnessed "a different kind of excitement."

"You saw it in the student-athletes' faces; you saw the excitement. It was a different type of excitement, and that's what you want to see. You want to see the student-athletes believe in themselves and celebrate," said Webb.

Notably, in 2022, HBCU football had a historic season when Jackson State, led by former head coach — and Pro Football Hall of Famer — Deion Sanders, landed an appearance on "College GameDay," and the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) championship game between Jackson State and Southern drew record-breaking viewership.

Additionally, people are really starting to learn about the legacy, pride, and tradition of HBCUs, according to Freeman-Patton, with athletics serving as the "front porch" of the institutions.

"Even when the world and this country was not prepared to see us in our glorious selves, we were brave enough, we were strong enough, we were courageous enough to get our there and compete and compete against the odds even when they were against us," said Shields-Gadson.

The athletic directors in the MEAC are also pushing to keep this momentum moving forward and elevate the conference.

"We need to be ready to show that we are top-notch just like everyone else, that we have the same thing and that our students give and have passion for the games and sports just as much as any other student," said Owens.

The vehicle behind this progress, according to Webb, is funding.

"I love finance. I love accounting," she said. "That's the vehicle that is going to drive everything that we do in athletics — from making sure we have enough academic resources to making sure we have a holistic student-athlete development."

Campbell expressed that it is important for stakeholders in their respective states to understand the importance of supporting HBCUs.

"Our institutions are very important to success, especially for people of color. As we are able to create global leaders and those leaders are able to go out and make a positive impact on communities, it is going to help our world. The investment in HBCUs should be taken very seriously," she said.

Other priorities from the Fabulous Five include improving facilities, increasing academic and mental health support for student-athletes, and adjusting recruitment practices to reflect the current NCAA landscape.

Shields-Gadson pointed to Delaware State's new holistic center, where student-athletes can seek out mental health support from real professionals.

"We have to stay engaged with the whole person's well-being," she said.

She also noted that institutions should not just recruit athletes from the front end, but continue selling the school to athletes every day, particularly in the transfer portal era.

At Morgan State, Freeman-Patton has helped hire more academic advisors and life skills coordinators among the staff to make sure students are getting the support they need academically.

Overall, the MEAC athletic directors are striving for their programs to gain the visibility that other larger programs have.

"We are in a space now where there's a lot of attention on HBCUs, and I think there are a lot of people now who are getting to see the benefits and the culture and everything that comes along with being an HBCU," Freeman-Patton said.