For decades while the nation’s predominantly white conferences refused to admit Black students HBCUs were the place where their athletic talent was allowed to flourish. There weren’t national networks airing their games and many major newspapers ignored the exploits, but NFL and NBA, even some MLB scouts found their way to these campuses and some of those leagues’ greatest stars were drafted and became household names.

Then changing times and Civil Rights legislation eliminated state sanctioned segregation, coupled with extraordinary performances from pioneering Black athletes at previously all-white institutions. As the barriers were shattered, suddenly the SEC, Big 10, Pac-8 (later Pac-10 and Pac-12), the SWC (later the Big 12) and others were now recruiting and admitting the premier players who once were HBCU cornerstones. Today the rosters of numerous Power 5 and large college football and basketball teams look like they are HBCUs, even as their overall institutions still have minimal amounts of Black students.

Meanwhile the Black leagues that were once the primary outlet for African American athletes find themselves facing the same predicament that eventually ended the Negro Leagues in baseball: the potential demise of their talent base. As more HBCUs opt to join predominantly white conferences, it poses a huge problem regarding the future of such conferences as the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC), the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC), the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SIAC) and the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA).

According to the website HBCU Gameday, Howard officials are preparing to leave the MEAC and join the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) starting in the 2023-2024 season. If true, Howard would become the 14th full member of the CAA on July 1, 2023, joining College of Charleston (Charleston, S.C.), University of Delaware (Newark, Del.), Drexel University (Philadelphia, Pa.), Elon University (Elon, N.C.), Hampton University (Hampton, Va.), Hofstra University (Hempstead, N.Y.), Monmouth University (West Long Branch, N.J.), North Carolina A&T (Greensboro, NC) University of North Carolina Wilmington (Wilmington, N.C.), Northeastern University (Boston, Mass.), Stony Brook University (Stony Brook, N.Y.), Towson University (Towson, Md.) and William & Mary (Williamsburg, Va.). CAA Football would expand to 15 members. The CAA and Howard have been involved in on-going discussions since at least 2021, sources indicated to HBCU Gameday.

Howard University would be the third HBCU in the last four months to join the FCS conference. Hampton University and North Carolina A&T were both accepted into the conference earlier this year, Hampton in January and A&T in February. Hampton and Howard were two of the founding schools of the CIAA (along with Shaw University, Virginia Union and Lincoln (PA) in 1912, while A&T and Howard were both founding members of the MEAC in 1970.

A Howard departure would leave the MEAC with just seven full members: Delaware State, Coppin State, Morgan State, Maryland-Eastern Shore, Norfolk State, North Carolina Central and South Carolina State. How vital could the MEAC be with only seven schools, particularly in terms of football? Hampton and North Carolina A&T are both set to leave the Big South and join the CAA on July 1, 2022. A&T will remain in the Big South for football until 2023.  Howard, meanwhile, would remain the MEAC for the 2022-2023 academic year.

Other HBCUs likeTennessee State University are also mulling future possibilities. While the Tigers are now in the Ohio Valley Conference, both Athletic Director Dr. Mikki Allen and head coach Eddie George are unhappy with both that affiliation and the school’s FCS status. But they want to ultimately become an FBS institution, which doesn’t track well with any plans for joining an HBCU conference.

HBCU football and basketball has a long and distinguished heritage and legacy. It will be interesting in the years ahead to see whether such conferences as the SWAC and MEAC can maintain and sustain it.