By Jarrett L. Carter, HBCU Digest
Two months from now, when March Madness envelops America’s sports conscience with buzzer-beaters, Cinderella stories and heartbreaking defeats, one of the biggest Cinderella stories, the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Basketball Tournament, will again take center stage in Charlotte, NC.
Behind the CIAA machine is new commissioner, Jacqie Carpenter. Hired in September 2012, the Hampton University graduate and respected athletic administrator is now the engineer of a black college brand that annually generates more than $50 million for the city of Charlotte and immeasurable awareness for the nation’s oldest black college athletic conference.
“I’ve been mesmerized by the growth of the conference,” said Carpenter, the first woman to lead the CIAA. “I've seen a lot of great people come through here, and when we say ‘CIAA for Life,’ we mean it. Whether you are a member of a CIAA member school, or a former member school, or of a school that isn’t even an HBCU, there’s an appeal about the CIAA that resonates with people.”
The CIAAs, as it is known to fans and supporters, is one of the largest NCAA tournaments in the country. With more than 200,000 estimated attendees in 2012, the tournament eclipsed its next largest competitor, the 2012 Big East Conference Tournament, by nearly 40,000 people.
The number doesn’t shock Carpenter, however. During her nine years at the NCAA, she quickly rose from an assistant director of championships to Director of Championships and Alliances in just two years. In 2006, she was appointed as the Director of the Division I Women’s Basketball Championship, and in 2008, landed a position on the senior leadership team managing the Division I Men’s Basketball Championship. She says her preparation there developed the skills needed to handle an event that some call an HBCU homecoming on steroids.
“The NCAA is higher education, but there's a corporate feel. You're dealing with millions in TV agreements. You learn to work through the politics, and to be patient with processes. Your presidents, your athletic directors, they are on the ground running things day to day, and learning to engage them in conversation for growth helps. Working with communities, cities, sponsors, it’s a lot of work, but a lot of fun at the same time.”
Carpenter says that the politics of sports were the most difficult part of her ascension to the top of the collegiate sports world. Gender equity in sports has long been a topic of discussion, and has even earned the attention of world leaders. For Carpenter, excellence is mandatory when the discussion is coupled with race.
“I know that if I mess up in a leadership role, I mess up for a generation of women," Carpenter said. "Excellence is important. I never compromised who I am as a person. I embrace my culture, and the way I navigate through racism or politics is going to be the model for my seven-year-old daughter. You've got to know how to play the game with honesty and good communication.
Everyday when we get up, (professional black women) are trying to figure out what we're going to do with our hair. I went through a period after my mother passed away, and before she died, I told her then I was thinking about transitioning into a natural look to honor her fight and the hair loss she experienced with cancer treatment. I was conscious of how people would look at me at the NCAA, how it would impact my career.”
Image has classically been a focus of discussion and professional training culture at historically black colleges, but some institutions have expanded the focus to include mental and physical wellness as well. Spelman College, for example, made headlines in 2012 for discontinuing its Division III athletic program to fund a campus-wide wellness program for it’s all-female student body.
For those women who do endure, one CIAA member president says that sports culture reaps the benefit.
“I think women leadership in sports has the same positive impact as it has for women as CEOs, presidents, superintendents,” said Saint Augustine’s University President Dianne Boardley Suber. “Women bring a different brand of leadership to any job. There’s a misnomer that because athletics are male dominated, that women couldn’t do the administrative jobs as well as men. In truth, women are focused on principles, strategies and growth just as men are. But additionally, women tend to see the student athlete as the student first, and then as an athlete.
They are conscious of athletes learning and performing in demanding roles as they evolve into young men and women, and women are inclined to see that transformation go well.”
Dr. Suber, who has led Saint Augustine’s for 13 years, says that the CIAA has grown from being more than just the first historically black athletic conference, and has taken on a life of its own.
“There’s no question that under former Commissioner [Leon] Kerry, and prior to him, the CIAA has become the showcase for institutions to demonstrate an ability to produce solid student athletes. It’s become much more visible, and it attracts a following of young people who aren’t a part of CIAA institutions, or even HBCUs.
It’s become an event. Some people think it's become even more than basketball, but it has been aggressive in promoting and advancing student athletes. And we don’t just want to increase the rigor of competition, but to ensure that students are academically sound. In turn, the NCAA has become responsive to the kinds of programs and the kinds of student athletes we produce.”
The rise of the CIAA has been a sharp contrast to overall athletic development at HBCUs over the past decade. Last year, the NCAA awarded more than $4 million to Division I mid-major programs to assist with academic development programs. Of the six programs to receive funding under the pilot program, four -- Jackson State University, Tennessee State University, Coppin State University and Norfolk State University -- are programs at historically black colleges.
The funding is part of an NCAA effort to address continuing trends among historically black colleges who are disqualified from post-season competition for poor academic progress rates, an annual measurement determining eligibility and retention of student athletes at all Division I schools. While APR rules and consequences do not affect the CIAA, the conference has emerged as a model for athletic engagement for academic success.
Carpenter attributes that model of development to the conference’s sense of community, a sense that she experiences now as head of the CIAA, but even more as a basketball player at Hampton University, where she helped lead the Lady Pirates to the 1988 Division II national women’s basketball championship and was a three-time CIAA Player of the Year.
“You gravitate to a place where there's a family affair. Lifetime relationships are formed here, and the tournament is like an annual family reunion. HBCUs are so unique and special because it was the only place we had access to celebrate each other. Celebrating young people who run up and down the court… for them, winning the CIAA is like winning the national title. I never won a CIAA championship, and it’s always something that sticks out to me.
With all of the success of the CIAA Basketball Tournament, the conference hasn’t built immunity from economic trouble. Just weeks before Carpenter’s hiring in September 2012, the conference requested financial assistance from each of its 12 member institutions -- $25,000 a piece to help the conference reduce a $500,000 deficit incurred through a decline in corporate sponsorships and sudden legal expenses.
Carpenter says that enhancing the conference’s scholarship fund for member institution programs, reducing its deficit and embracing community partnerships are the key for continuing growth, even for the biggest HBCU sports brand in the land.
“We want to get a handle on embracing the community of where our championships are. We don't just want to make impact on hotels and restaurants, but with youth through equipment and campus and programming to build communities. We want our students to see the benefit of being a student athlete in the CIAA. I don’t want them lost in the commercialism," she adds, echoing , efforts by fellow HBCUs seeking a more positive impact of their homecoming efforts last year.
"Thinking through what this conference could turn into in the next 100 years, I'm excited about what's ahead. Coming back home, being able to help my family and to bring some things we hadn't done, or have the potential to do, there’s no greater feeling.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misspelled Jacqueline Carpenter's name. The correct spelling is reflected here.