SPORTS: Century-old NCAA ready to flaunt its new image

January 16, 2006

A centennial celebration only comes around, what, every hundred years or so?

Given that, the NCAA hopes to do right by its 100th anniversary, and to maximize the opportunity it brings.

"This is the catalyst," says Dennis Cryder, the association's senior vice president for branding and communications. "The foundation has been put in place. Now we want to use the centennial to put our student-athletes out front, and represent the best of the whole process of putting sports and academics together."

Pessimists would say hooey. Optimists would say hooray.

In either case, the Indianapolis-based organization for far too long absorbed the slings and arrows that came its way by being reactive rather than proactive.

The pendulum began to swing the other way in 1999, when the NCAA moved to Indy from the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park, Kan., and the leadership, with then-president Ced Dempsey at the top, determined the move needed to be not just a physical one, but also a shift in the culture of the organization.

Then, three years ago, Dempsey bowed out and the NCAA hired an academic-Myles Brand, the president at Indiana University and best known as the man who pulled rank on The General-to take control.

In the intervening time, there's hardly been an issue button Brand hasn't pushed. Agree or disagree with his positions, one fact is indisputable: The NCAA is no longer playing defense.

"Over the years, we've been all over the board with our messaging," says Cryder. "But now we have someone-Myles Brand-who is very good in being consistent with his message and with our message."

The distilled message is that "student-athlete" is not an oxymoron and athletics and higher education are not incompatible.

Cryder also points out that studies have shown that the public previously identified the NCAA with two things: rules enforcement and the Final Four/March Madness. He says there has been a gradual shift in that public perception to encompass such ideals as fair play, character, learning, balance, spirit and community, all underneath the broad umbrella of higher education.

The centennial provides a year-long platform for that message. Beginning with the Jan. 5-10 convention in Indianapolis and continuing through December, the NCAA plans to use every form of media available-and in particular its television partners CBS, ESPN and CSTV-to saturate its many audiences with positive statements about the benefits of intercollegiate athletics.

If you've seen any NCAA events at all, you should be familiar with the tag line "360,000 student-athletes, most of whom are going pro in something other than sports."

Again, the cynics would say hooey, although the NCAA also has become much more forceful in stating the case-and offering statistics to back it up-that student-athletes are making their grades and graduating in greater percentages than their non-athlete peers.

"We need to get the evidence out there," Cryder says. "We need to explain why we're doing it and how we're doing it. It's like, 'Where does the money go?' Well, we have to educate people that ... the money goes back to the member institutions and the student-athletes."

For those of us in Indianapolis, if the messages don't come through loud and clear, they will at least come through often. The NCAA's Hall of Champions, for example, will feature a year-long succession of events, videos, photos, artifacts and interactive displays. During the Men's Final Four, the Hall will be open for 100 consecutive hours. The Men's Final Four, along with a number of other NCAA championships, will feature a number of ancillary events and displays.

The goal at the end of the year, according to the NCAA's "Centennial Overview," is to:


* "Increase the public understanding of and confidence in the integrity of intercollegiate athletics and the connection to higher education;


* "Increase awareness of and advocacy for the positive values of intercollegiate athletics among the media and the public, and with the membership;




"Activate the NCAA Centennial celebration as a platform to amplify the Association's commitment to and focus on the student-athlete."

Says Cryder, "This is the crescendo of what we've been doing for four years."

If not 100.



Benner is associate director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bbenner@ibj.com.
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