Sports Illustrated and Empower Onyx are putting the spotlight on the diverse journeys of Black women across sports—from the veteran athletes, to up-and-coming stars, coaches, executives and more—in the series, Elle-evate: 100 Influential Black Women in Sports.
Success didn’t come overnight for Sonja Stills. Recently named the new commissioner of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, effective Jan. 1, 2022, Stills has already dedicated 19 years of her career to the conference, which is famously home to historically Black colleges and universities in the Southeastern and Mid-Atlantic regions of the U.S. As the MEAC’s current chief of staff and COO, Stills was an obvious choice to replace Dennis Thomas, the longest-tenured commissioner in the conference’s 50-year history—after beating out the rest of her competition in a nationwide search.
However, her historical appointment as the first Black woman to serve as commissioner was not always in her line of sight. “If you had asked me, ‘Do you want to be the commissioner?’ years ago, I would have said, ‘No. I don’t need 11 bosses. I have my hands full with one.’ I just wanted to be an administrative assistant and go off into the sunset, something simple,” Stills recalls. “But as I grew into the position and moved up the ranks, it just seemed like a natural fit. I’ve been here 19 years—I can see where we came from and where we need to go.”
Her legacy within the conference has allowed her to create a clear vision and carefully craft plans for the future of the MEAC under her leadership. Stills is focused on giving MEAC athletes access to opportunities outside of the conference and setting them up for a more dynamic future.
“I want to create and bring a team together to execute my vision, to bring us where I know we can go as a conference,” she says. “I want to make it more innovative, more creative. Find more opportunities for our students to be on national platforms. We have a long-standing relationship with ESPN, and we're going to continue having that relationship. We also want to find opportunities to put our Olympic sports out there.”
One of her first initiatives, an ongoing student leadership symposium, aims to equip athletes with the critical-thinking skills they need to market themselves. By setting athletes up for a deeper understanding of high-level marketing, Stills is focused on increasing their probability for success during and after their professional careers. “The point of the symposium is to be able to provide them with information regarding branding, entrepreneurship, their name, image and likeness,” she says. “I want them to look at that and protect themselves as they're getting into contracts.
“Of course, how to brand yourself is very important, but what is critical is leadership. We are showing them how to use the power that they already have.” Stills also has a deep-rooted understanding of the importance of mental health for the Black athletes she is responsible for. While many student athletic programs recently chose to focus on and elevate mental health resources in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and an international wave of protests focused on police brutality within Black communities, Stills has always focused on resources for her HBCU students.
“Before the pandemic, we were pushing for mental health. That was an initiative that came out of our student-athlete advisory committee. We know that, when students are on campus, the counseling center has thousands and thousands of people who need help,” Stills says. “We want our athletes to be able to gain free resources and to be able to get to somebody when they really need to—not have to wait weeks, or even months, to see somebody. Being able to give them those resources so they can find somebody to talk to, right when they need to? It’s very important.”
Within the last two years, the MEAC lost three notable schools to other conferences—North Carolina A&T, FAMU and Bethune-Cookman. Even so, Stills is beyond confident in the power of the eight remaining schools in the conference. “Of course, when you lose conference members, you have to make an adjustment. The institutions are going to do what they think is best, and we wish them well,” she says. “We still have the elite eight left, extraordinary institutions who are still competitive. So if it's just us eight, then it's going to be just us eight—doing great things. I'm fine with that. The conference has gone through realignment through its history over 51 years. This is nothing different.”
Her overall hope for the MEAC is that Black athletes will see the HBCUs within the conference as premier destinations for the best athletic programs, and the best academic programs and historical landmarks of Black culture, before they consider committing to predominantly white institutions (PWIs). “We have history, yes. But the MEAC, it is a culture. Yes, we are that place where students can come and get a fine education. But besides that, it’s just different,” Stills says. “Even at games. It's about the fashion. It's about the bands. It's like a homecoming every time you go to a game. We are continuously putting our culture out there. The more that we're on national platforms, the more storytelling we do, the more that people can see what we're doing. You don't have to go to a predominantly white institution to get to the pros, and you don’t have to feel like going to [an] HBCU is somehow lesser. You can come here and become a doctor, a lawyer, anything. We are right up there with them.”
Naya Samuel is a contributor for Empower Onyx, a diverse multichannel platform celebrating the stories and transformative power of sports for Black women and girls.