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CIAA: 100 years strong and moving forward

By Gail Dent

The Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association – the oldest Historically Black College and University athletic conference – is in the midst of celebrating its Centennial anniversary.

Interim CIAA Commissioner Peggy Davis summed up the significance of the Centennial for the conference and intercollegiate athletics as a whole.

“The CIAA has such a rich history, and to be able to celebrate the 100th anniversary of its existence means a great deal to our member institutions, alumni and current students,” Davis said. “There are a select few conferences in Division I, II, or III that can say they have been around for 100 years. This country has seen and experienced many economic challenges over the years; however the CIAA continues to stand strong and provide academic and athletic support to students of all generations.”

The conference, located in Hampton, Va., was founded in 1912 as the Colored Intercollegiate Athletic Association. It changed its name to the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association in 1950. Two of its current schools – Livingstone and Biddle (now known as Johnson C. Smith) – are credited with playing, in 1892, the first intercollegiate football game between two African-American colleges.

Today, the CIAA boasts colleges and universities that span the East Coast from Pennsylvania to North Carolina. Along with Livingstone and Johnson C. Smith, current membership includes Bowie State, Elizabeth City State, Fayetteville State, Lincoln (Pa.), Saint Augustine’s, Shaw, Virginia State, Virginia Union and Winston-Salem State. In 2008, the CIAA made history by adding Chowan and diversifying its membership, making it the first non-predominantly African-American school to join the conference.

The CIAA hosts conference championships in cross country, basketball, football, indoor/outdoor track and field, golf, baseball and tennis for men, and bowling, cross country, basketball, indoor/outdoor track and field, softball, tennis and volleyball for women.

Over the years, CIAA schools have made a statement in academics, educating some of America’s prominent leaders and public figures, including Reginald Lewis (owner of Beatrice Foods); Maynard Jackson (first black mayor of Atlanta); Douglas Wilder (first elected African-American governor in Virginia); Andrew Young (first black U.S. ambassador to the United Nations); and Shirley Caesar (pastor and gospel music artist).

Additionally, each season the conference recognizes the top team grade point averages, which fits with its commitment to the academic success of its student-athletes and the mission of the NCAA’s Division II’s “Life in the Balance” approach. The highest-ranking was for the Fayetteville State women’s cross country team (3.77).

Perhaps the popular aspect of the CIAA is its men’s and women’s conference basketball tournament. Held each February, the event has grown into one of the top cultural gatherings in the country. The 2012 event, played in Charlotte, N.C., accounted for an estimated economic impact of $50.5 million for the city over seven days, a 14 percent increase from the previous year according to the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority. Overall attendance and attendance at functions also witnessed an increase with more than 197,000 attending this Centennial year. Last year’s tournament attendance was also spectacular, drawing about 190,000 visitors to Charlotte. The Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority estimated economic impact near $44 million in 2011.

So what makes the CIAA men’s and women’s tournament so special? Most collegiate conferences host tournaments, though few are able to match the attendance, city impact or capture the pageantry similar to the CIAA.

Over the years, the CIAA basketball tournament has evolved into a fan festival, an alumni reunion, an academic showcase and a sporting event, all rolled into one. And each year, the event continues to grow, welcoming new visitors.

In addition to what was on the court, what was off the court drew big numbers, too. The NCAA inclusion office was a sponsor of the CIAA Education Day, which attracted a record 3,500 high school students and parents at the Charlotte Convention Center. The morning featured motivational speakers who stressed the importance of higher education, a Greek step show, and booths staffed by CIAA college and university admission and recruitment officers on hand to answer parent and student questions.

Kimberly Ford, NCAA director of inclusion, spoke to the students and stressed that athletics may be an option to pursuing an education for many of them. When asked how many were high school student-athletes, about 40 percent of the audience raised their hands.

When discussing Education Day, Colby Johnson, a junior student at Rocky River High School noted the morning experience. “It was really nice because we can see all of the different colleges and choices and the different environments up close,” he said. “I’m at the NCAA booth to get information on eligibility because you have to have it and know it in order to play sports in college.”

Johnson’s mother, Kym, also agreed that the Education Day was beneficial. “This event helps students to start thinking seriously about school,” she said. “It’s a reality when they see all of the different schools and what they have to offer. I also think this is a comfortable setting for the students. It’s friendly for juniors and seniors.”

Bernard Franklin, NCAA executive vice president of membership and student-athlete affairs and chief inclusion officer, was honored during the CIAA Hall of Fame induction ceremony with the United States Marine Corps Excellence in Leadership Award. Brig. Gen. Lori Reynolds, a former student-athlete on Navy’s women’s basketball team, presented the award to Franklin, a former president at three CIAA schools. The award is presented to individuals who consistently demonstrate the Marine Corps’ values of honor, courage and commitment in their everyday lives.

“This is a special honor for me this year because this is the 100th anniversary of the CIAA,” said Franklin. “I share this moment with my wife, my CIAA family and my NCAA colleagues. I’m thankful to have my foundation and my roots in this wonderful conference.” Franklin was a president at Virginia Union University, Livingstone College and Saint Augustine’s College before joining the NCAA.

The CIAA also experienced a welcome visit from First Lady Michelle Obama, who made an appearance during the Friday women’s semifinal sessions. Obama promoted her healthy living initiative “Let’s Move.”  The O’Jays performed at the sold-out 100th anniversary celebration and fans flocked to the fan interactive events throughout the weekend.

The tournament games represented the pageantry, good sportsmanship and high-level talent seen each year. Winston-Salem’s men claimed their 11th tournament championship while Shaw claimed the women’s title en route to the Division II national championship.