All-Black NAIA conference offers refuge from the money game 

Dr. Kiki Baker Barnes
Courtesy of Twitter

The Gulf Coast Athletic Conference (GCAC) is scheduled to make “a significant announcement regarding the league” on Wednesday, Sept. 7. Now in its 40th year in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), the GCAC is the NAIA’s only all-Black college conference, established in 1981 with seven schools. It currently has eight full members, all but one of which are private schools.

Commissioner Dr. Kiki Baker Barnes is the first Black female commissioner in NAIA history and one of only four Black women to hold a top athletics office in America. We talked to her recently about the GCAC and how much, if at all, the crazy-changing college sport world with expansion and mega-media deals has affected her league.

“I absolutely see it filtering down,” said Barnes, who became the full-time commissioner this spring after time spent as the interim head and Dillard University athletic director at the same time. “I definitely see that trickling down and being a part of the conversation for us as well. All we have to figure out is how this model makes money for our schools and supports programming efforts for the student-athlete experience.”

The GCAC’s footprint is mainly Southern-based, located in the states of Texas, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Tennessee and Mississippi. Only Southern University at New Orleans is a public institution; the other seven schools are church-affiliated. Philander Smith College (Ark.), Rust (Miss.) College and Wiley College (Texas) are United Methodist; Fisk University (Tenn.) and Tougaloo (Miss.) College are Church of Christ; Oakwood (Ala.) University is Seventh Day Adventist; and Dillard (La.) University is jointly affiliated with United Methodists and Church of Christ.

Barnes pointed out that if expansion is in the conference’s future, the prospective member or members would have to have an enrollment size of nearly 900 to 2,000, be connected to UNCF, and be affiliated with a church denomination. “We’re definitely having those conversations with our athletic directors about what that could look like for us as a conference,” she said.

A former coach and athletic director, Barnes also is dedicated to seeing more Black females in athletics leadership, a primary reason why she started her “So You Want A Career in Athletics” professional leadership development program for girls ages 13-18. 

“We have had a number of successes,” the commissioner said proudly. “I think I had six young ladies this year who are part of my academy or who have mentored a person” in athletic administration positions.

However, she believes that the next equity and inclusion hurdle to be overcome is hiring more Black females in key fundraising roles, who according to Barnes are often relegated to lower managerial roles. “Matter of fact, for the most part…a woman or a minority [hired] is doing the day-to-day management” but not hired “doing the fundraising…to develop the external relationships that would help build the athletic director level,” Barnes explained.

Barnes predicts that we haven’t seen anything yet as far as the ever-changing college sport landscape is concerned. As a result, she sees the NAIA possibly as an ideal landing place for colleges and universities seeking “athletic refuge.”  

“In the next three to five years, I think things will be changed drastically,” she concluded. “I think that the NCAA will see a lot of members leave because of the changes that are starting to happen. The money game that’s beginning with the bigger schools is gonna be putting more people out. [The NAIA] is a great place to be, so I’m putting that out in the atmosphere.”