BENNER: NCAA needs another 'pathological optimist'

September 26, 2009

As a tribute to its late president, the NCAA has posted on its Web site dozens of blogs, podcasts, speeches and editorials created by Myles Brand during his culture-altering tenure at the helm of intercollegiate athletics.

One, in particular, caught my eye. It was titled, “Give Optimism a Chance.”

Ever true to his background in philosophy, Brand framed these thoughts following a trip last fall to China where he noted a distinct lack of cynicism a mong the Chinese with whom he interacted.

Brand expanded on the theme as it relates to college sports in America.

He wrote:

“College sports, I strongly believe, is one of the great subcultures in America. The athletes are enthusiastic and capable young men and women and the fans are avid supporters of the university teams for which they play. There are not many events that are as enjoyable as watching a hard fought football game on a sunny fall Saturday afternoon, or a basketball game between two teams proud of their university affiliations.

“But, as good as college sports is, it is also embedded in and surrounded by cynicism. You read it every day in the press, hear it from media commentators and know that it is never far below the surface of fan exuberance.

“Of course, college sports are not perfect. More than a few participants are moved by externalities—by future prospects for money and fame, rather than the joy of the game. The competitive urge sometimes overpowers the sense of fair play, for coaches and fans alike. But the cynicism in the air detracts from the overwhelming good of the activity.

“Actually, I do not blame the cynics in college sports. They caught the virus from the rest of American culture. Americans these days permit and, indeed, encourage cynicism to pervade their lives.”

Brand then described himself with a line I love:

“I am a pathological optimist.”

Indeed, he was. It was that optimism that made Brand believe he could bring such a substantive change to intercollegiate athletics that even the most cynical of critics would have to give him his due. It was that optimism that enabled him to unceasingly preach a positive message about the value of athletic participation within the framework of higher academia. And, I suspect, it was also that optimism that prompted Brand to give yet another chance to a certain basketball coach in Bloomington … before he finally had to do what he had to do.

Since his passing Sept. 16, the tributes have been many, recognizing his leadership role in academic reform, gender and racial equity and student-athlete welfare. He confronted the stereotype of the “dumb jock,” a perception he detested and labeled as “just dumb.” He took on the wild, wild West landscape of basketball. He was a willing listener for coaches. He was a gentleman and a scholar, yes, but he also stood tough against the cynics. He refused to let them have the only word in the debate.

Because he died too soon, Brand leaves behind unfinished work, and it is up to his successor—indeed, all who have an influential role in intercollegiate athletics—to continue his push for the reforms and ideals he championed. At the close of his last published remarks, his President’s Report in June, Brand wrote, “We should be proud of and pleased with what we have done, but there is much left to do.”

Jim Isch, the NCAA’s chief financial officer, has been named interim president. Isch is a terrific, upbeat person. I was delighted to read that he didn’t intend to be a caretaker, but would continue Brand’s work full throttle.

In the meantime, the NCAA’s executive committee will commence a search for Brand’s successor. Most believe another university president will be chosen.

Whoever it is, I hope he or she brings some of Brand’s “pathological optimism” to the task.

• Finally, on an unrelated note, for those of us who may have a difficult time rooting for Chicago teams, there’s one we need to be pulling for Oct. 2 in Copenhagen, Denmark.

That would be the Chicago team bidding for the 2016 Summer Olympics. Chicago, Rio de Janeiro, Tokyo and Madrid are the finalists. Many believe it will come down to Chicago or Rio.

If it’s Chicago, the spinoff for Indy could be huge, with the opportunity to host pre-Olympic competitions and training camps. Certainly, the torch relay would pass through Indiana on its way to Chicago. Perhaps even an official Olympic event could take place here—say, preliminary-round soccer at Lucas Oil Stadium.•


Benner is director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.


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