NAIA Continues Leadership with Opendorse Partnership

The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) is a governing body of college athletics that is home to 252 institutions, 21 conferences, and 77,000 student-athletes competing in 27 sports.

Since 1937, the Kansas City-based organization has focused on supporting “small athletic programs that are dedicated to character-driven intercollegiate athletics.” The NAIA has always seen the bigger picture and created inclusive opportunities for every athlete.

By partnering with Opendorse as its official NIL marketplace and official NIL marketing, education, and compliance solution – a first-of-its-kind partnership in intercollegiate athletics – the NAIA carries on its proud tradition of trailblazing.

Explore the rich history, tradition, and societal impact of the NAIA.

Racial Equality

Clarence Walker became the first African American student-athlete on March 9, 1948. Walker’s Indiana State Sycamores were coached by John Wooden, who turned down an invitation to the championship tournament the year prior because Walker was not permitted to play.

John Wooden and Clarence Walker changed the game forever.
Photo provided by the Walker Family to the Indianapolis Star

In 1953, the NAIA became the first collegiate athletics association to welcome Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

Several years later, in 1957, Tennessee Agricultural & Industrial State College (now Tennessee State University) was the first HBCU to compete in the NAIA National Tournament. They defeated Southeastern Oklahoma to become the first HBCU to win a collegiate basketball national championship.

Inclusion of Foreign Institutions 

In 1967, the NAIA became the first association to admit colleges and universities from outside the United States. It wasn’t until 2010 when Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, became the first NCAA member outside of the U.S. (Division II, Great Northwest Athletic Conference League).

NAIA membership currently features the University of British Columbia and the University of Victoria (Canada), and the University of the Virgin Islands (Virgin Islands).

Even though all the Buccaneers’ 2022 spring sports were cancelled due to COVID-19, the University of the Virgin Islands compete annually in the NAIA.

Gender Equality

The NAIA was the first collegiate athletics association to sponsor both men’s and women’s championships by adding championships in basketball, cross country, golf, gymnastics, indoor track & field, outdoor track & field, softball, swim & dive, tennis, and volleyball in 1988.

Toward the end of the decade, Phyllis Holmes became the first woman elected NAIA President in 1988.

Then in 1997, Liz Heaston from Willamette University became the first female college athlete to play and score in a college football game, paving the way for Sarah Fuller who kicked for Vanderbilt University (NCAA Division I) in 2020.

The NAIA added Competitive Cheer & Dance as a NAIA championship in 2016, making it the first organization to sponsor the sport.

Resources and Recruiting Opportunities

The NAIA launched its Champions of Character Program® in 2000 to provide athletes, coaches, and administrators with the sport-specific character development skills.

In 2010, the PlayNAIA Eligibility Center open its doors. Prospective student-athletes can be evaluated for academic and athletic eligibility at the center.

And the NAIA became the first college athletics association to sponsor official recruiting events in 2014. NAIA Showcases are one-day recruiting events where prospective student-athletes can showcase their skills and connect with coaches.

NIL Adoption

In October 2020, the NAIA passed legislation that allowed its student-athletes to monetize their NIL by “referencing their intercollegiate athletic participation in such promotions or appearances.” This was nine months before the NCAA formally addressed NIL prior to July 1, 2021.

But the NAIA had, in fact, allowed student-athletes to receive NIL compensation since 2014 even though they could not reference their athletic status at that time. 

In December 2020, Aquinas College women’s volleyball player Chloe Mitchell became the first college student-athlete to secure an endorsement under the new rules.

And on January 26, 2022, the NAIA partnered with Opendorse to become the first collegiate governing body to secure an official NIL partner. Its members now have the advantage of a preferred NIL partner.

The partnership with Opendorse is yet another example of the NAIA’s unwavering commitment to creating a level playing field, guiding student-athlete success, and ensuring fair completion for all.