Sports Illustrated and Empower Onyx highlights the diverse journeys of black women in sports – from veteran athletes, to up-and-coming champions, coaches, managers and more – in the series, Elle-evate: 100 Powerful Black Women in Sports.
The past year in federal court cases has been eventful, to say the least. Among other opinions, the Supreme Court struck down constitutional rights to abortion, protected the Second Amendment from strict government restrictions on public firearms and shot down various efforts by the Biden Administration to protect the public from COVID-19. All the while Candi Smiley remains cool. He said: “We all knew this was coming. “It has been building for the past few years. But, yeah, everyone is scared.”
Both decisions appear to affect Smiley’s job as UCLA’s deputy director of Title IX — a position Smiley has held for the past three years. And the fact that all of this reform happened 50 years after title IX is a bitter myth.
Title IX, of course, does more than guarantee women equal opportunity to play sports at colleges and universities. It prohibits any discrimination based on gender in any school that receives government funding. Smiley’s job is to live up to that standard—a very big job. Not only does UCLA have the largest student population — about 45,000, give or take — but it sits within one of the most progressive states in the union.
His charge drives success, from maintaining fairness in recruiting to ensuring LGBTQ+ students are treated well on campus. “It’s a bit surprising because it upsets everyone in the area, everything is unstable,” he says. “So if a student wants to explain how these decisions can affect his life, he should not go to the people who follow those principles. They will go to counsellors, to representatives and to discussions—which we encourage. In other words, you need to get your mind out of your system and think about what you want to do before you come to us. Because we have to have a purpose and give you a command, unlike how we can feel something. ”
In cases of school violence, Smiley’s office is the firewall between students and police, and the court of last resort. If there’s a common theme, sadly, it’s that neither party gets the results – the plaintiff, not even a little bit. He said: “The best hope you can hope for is relief.”
Smiley’s pragmatic approach would be easy to mistake for indifference if he weren’t so passionate. However, if he is less happy than the lot, it is because of the long hours of studying Matlock to do his business on the court. He said: “I remember watching it with my mother when I was 6 years old and saying, ‘I’m going to do this.’
Smiley grew up in Indianapolis, a Hoosier through and through, one of four children – including fraternal twins. In high school, he played basketball and ran track. At Indiana, he started with a major in business “because every time I saw anyone in sports law, they were consultants and business managers. There was always some business.” From there, it was on to Indiana Law, then internships at USA Track and Field and the USTA. The internship at the NFL coincided with the death of Minnesota Vikings tight end Korey Stringer in 2001, which sparked a discussion about “whether the athletes were employees or independent contractors,” he says.
Smiley realized early in his career that acting alone was not for him. So he volunteered and volunteered until he found a Facebook post advertising a Director IX position at Howard University. “I was like, I can really help people with using my law degree? This is it!” He says.
At Howard, he saw firsthand how difficult it is for HBCUs to compete with predominantly white institutions. “When you think about financial aid, the government must pay for the school, and the organization must distribute the money to the students,” he explains. “What I didn’t hear was … Indiana University maybe 15% of their students need Pell Grants, or a much lower number. And because of the money they have in their savings, they can advance the money and make sure you get the money when you start school.
“Well, if Howard has 65% of their students who are eligible for Pell Grants, they don’t have enough money in their pockets. So they have to spend whatever money they have, but then they have to wait for the state to pay them. So it looks like the HBCUs aren’t doing their business and all this crazy stuff, but there are reasons behind it. If school starts in August, but the government doesn’t pay until October, where is the money going to get? And what should you do if the government pays late?”
After four and a half years in DC, Smiley has been a longtime member of UCLA’s Title IX office. It’s a tough, tough job—especially in this tumultuous time—with some very obvious things. Last month, on the 50th anniversary of Title IX, education secretary Miguel Cardona unveiled plans to reverse Trump-era Title IX rollbacks that affected how schools responded to sexual harassment complaints that included protections for transgender students. But how that affects their playoff chances is still up in the air. Over the weekend, a federal judge temporarily suspended the order.
For some, this can be frustrating. For Smiley, this is another time to take a deep breath, raise his arms and help him get better. “Nobody’s going to be happy with what they come up with,” he says. “But as long as the goal is included, I think we’re going to be in a good place.”
Andrew Lawrence is a contributor to Empower Onyx, an interdisciplinary platform celebrating issues and game change for Black women and girls.