The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is a governing body unique in the sports world. The NCAA is an organization that blends athletic governance, academic regulation over its participants, and revenue generation under one tightly structured umbrella. While primarily a body that is devoted to the advancement and supervision of sport in an amateur setting, the NCAA methods regarding the stewardship of intercollegiate athletics are consistent with classic corporate organization models.
The NCAA was founded over 50 years after American intercollegiate sport established a niche in the public consciousness. From the first truly intercollegiate football games in the 1870s, football rivalries grew in the universities of the eastern United States. The rules of the game were not fully formalized until 1906, when the forward pass became legalized. The early contests were both hard fought and dangerous, including “gang tackling” and tactics such as the “flying wedge,” a device by which the ball carrier was shielded by his ten teammates in a wedge formation that was thrust full-speed into the opposition. Serious head injuries and skeletal fractures were relatively common, and after a number of football player fatalities in the early 1900s occurred during intercollegiate contests, the then-president of United States, Theodore Roosevelt, was subject to considerable public pressure to ban football from intercollegiate athletics.
At the urging of Roosevelt, representatives of 13 universities met in 1905 with the intention of making football safer. From these meetings came the formation of the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States (IAAUS), which was constituted with 62 members in 1906. The IAAUS became the National Collegiate Athletic Association in 1910. The membership of the modern NCAA is an aggregation of over 1,000 institutions. In the nomenclature of American intercollegiate athletics, the expression “college sports” includes colleges, which are four-year degree-granting institutions often specializing in liberal arts programs, as well as universities, which tend to offer more comprehensive academic programs, including postgraduate and doctoral studies. Junior colleges are not a part of the NCAA framework; these are two-year institutions that offer associate degrees. Junior colleges have their own national governance and structure. It is not uncommon for junior college student athletes, particularly in basketball, to transfer to a college or university program after completion of their two-year program; such players are often referred to as a “juco transfer.”
While the initial focus of the IAAUS and the successor NCAA was the regulation of football safety, intercollegiate sports of all types experienced a dramatic expansion after the end of World War I. The NCAA provided governance over the men’s intercollegiate sports of its member institutions only until the late 1970s, offering no championship opportunities for women until that time. The first collegiate track and field championships were organized by the NCAA in 1921, and through the succeeding years the NCAA expanded its sanctioned championships to include team sports such as baseball, whose first College World Series was held in 1947, ice hockey in 1948, soccer in 1959, and lacrosse in 1971.
The history of the national collegiate basketball championships highlights the rise of the NCAA in contrast with other bodies that have been a part of competitive college sports landscape throughout the history of the NCAA. Created in 1901 by James Nai-smith at what is now Springfield College in Massachusetts, basketball enjoyed a remarkable growth at a collegiate level. In 1901, a group known as the Helms Committee determined the national champion through a vote of its members. In 1937, a business group based in Kansas City organized a national basketball championship, with an emphasis on small college participation. This organization later became known as the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA); the NAIA exists today as a distinct governing body with a membership of over 250 academic institutions.
In 1939, the NCAA assumed control of the Helms Committee, and it convened its first tournament that year. At the same time, the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) was born, a tournament where college teams were invited to play in a single knockout elimination format at Madison Square Garden in New York City. For many years, the NCAA and NIT competitions were not mutually exclusive, (City College of New York won both events in 1950, the only institution to do so) and the NIT had equivalent prestige to that of the NCAA championship. By the 1960s, the NCAA basketball tournament had become the premier college postseason tournament, and by the 1980s, the NIT was relegated to an event for teams that could not qualify for the NCAA championship. In 2005, the NCAA acquired all rights to the NIT competition, which is now operated under the NCAA auspices.
The growth of all NCAA sports prompted the creation of different competitive divisions in the early 1970s. It had become evident that in many sports, smaller institutions had difficulty competing against larger and better-funded schools that offered better and more comprehensive forms of athletic scholarships, thus attracting better athletes. The tension between the academic purposes of postsecondary education, and the corresponding attention paid by admissions directors to College Board results and high school grades, and the value accorded athletic success at many institutions has been an undercurrent in the work carried out by the NCAA in its regulatory capacity since the 1930s. In modern America, where the cost of university education will commonly range from $20,000 to $50,000 per year of study, a “full-ride” athletic scholarship is a significant prize, as it is common for students to graduate from university with student loan debt in excess of $50,000.
As an attempt to standardize the practices of the institutions, the NCAA created competitive divisions in 1973. All NCAA member schools must comply with the rules with respect to their division in order to compete within the sports championships offered at each division. The divisions include:
- Division 1: Schools are permitted to offer full athletic scholarships, in accordance with both NCAA rules regarding entrance grades and the recruitment of athletes. Division 1 schools tend to be the larger academic institutions, although not exclusively so. There are over 350 Division 1 schools in the NCAA.
- Division 2: Schools are permitted to offer both full athletic scholarships, partial athletic scholarship (often the value of tuition or a similar component of the full academic costs), or scholarships that combine both academic and athletic components. There are 25 different sports championships contested in Division 2 by approximately 200 member institutions.
- Division 3: Members tend to be smaller, academically centered colleges and universities. Athletic scholarships are prohibited among the approximately 430 NCAA institutions at this level.
For the sport of football only, the NCAA created the subdivisions of Division 1A and Division 1AA in 1978.
Since 1973, the NCAA has created an extensive regulatory framework regarding the structure of each division. In addition to the rules with respect to the availability of athletic scholarships, each division has requirements for its participating institutions. In Division 1, all members must provide seven varsity sports for each gender, with each sport having a minimum number of games required in each season. In revenue-generating sports such as football, Division 1A schools must comply with minimum stadium seating requirements, and all such Division 1 institutions are capped regarding the amount of financial aid that they may offer to prospective student athletes. A significant feature of many Division 1 sports programs is the ability of the school to recruit its prospective athletes on a national and international basis.
Division 2 schools are required to offer a minimum of four varsity sports for both men and women. Division 2 schools are not bound by the facility requirements of Division 1. Division 2 student athletes are often recruited on a regional as opposed to a national basis.
Division 3 schools offer no financial aid based on athletic ability, as the athletic departments at these institutions are funded as with any other aspect of the institution. While highly competitive, Division 3 athletics emphasizes the athlete over the nature and the quality of the facilities.
The NCAA imposes standard rules regarding participation in its championships, including minimum academic averages and a power to test athletes for prohibited substances such as anabolic steroids.
Almost all NCAA institutions are organized into conferences for the purposes of competitive play. Each conference is a regionally based entity, and conference play between the member schools comprises the bulk of a school’s competitive schedule in a season. Conferences such as the Big Ten began as football leagues. The Big Ten, whose most famous members include Ohio State and University of Michigan, was first organized in 1896. It is an irony in the formation of the Big Ten that it was created for the express purpose of “restricted eligibility to athletics for bona fide, full-time students who were not delinquent in their studies.” This sentiment has bothered college and university administrators to the present day across the United States.
Although most conferences have an extensive tradition, which has served to create passionate inter-school rivalries, some athletic conferences came into being to take advantage of increased television revenues that flow to the conference and ultimately to its member institutions. The most successful of the relatively recent conference formations has been the Big East Conference, created in 1979 to both increase the level of competition for its member schools and to take advantage of a media market centered in the
Michigan State and North Carolina battle during the semi-finals round of the 2005 NCAA men’s Final Four Tournament.
basketball hotbeds of New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.
The NCAA governed men’s sports exclusively until 1979; the organization of women’s intercollegiate athletics had begun on an ad hoc basis with a golf championship in 1941; other championships in a number of sports were convened throughout the 1960s, to little national attention or acclaim. The Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) was founded in 1971, as a separate governing body from the NCAA. With the passage of the federal U.S. legislation known as Title IX, which provided a number of guarantees regarding women’s sport and its funding relative to male sports, women’s sports of all types enjoyed an unprecedented growth in American colleges and universities; by 1980, the AIAW had over 900 member institutions. The NCAA organized its first women’s basketball national championship in 1982, and this action prompted the disintegration of the AIAW. From 1982 forward, the NCAA has organized its women’s championships along the same lines as those in male sports.
A large portion of the current work of the NCAA is with respect to its generation of revenues from the major championships held in the Division 1 men’s sports of basketball and football. March Madness, as national basketball championship is popularly known, attracts a huge television audience; each of the conferences to which the 64 successful qualifiers belong receives a share of the monies from the tournament, as does the individual team and their athletic department. The BCS, the corresponding football championship series for Division 1A teams, also generates hundreds of millions of dollars in television revenues for the NCAA.
The concept of the student athlete has been one of constant attention from the NCAA throughout its history. The chief criticism of college sports in the United States has been the perception that in many sports, particularly those where the athlete has the potential to move on to the professional ranks, have been rife with abuses. The most common criticisms are with respect to recruiting students who do not have the grades that would qualify them for admission to the institution from high school, the payment of illegal monies or gifts to student athletes while they are attending the college or university, or the failure to vigorously monitor the academic progress of student athletes while they are in attendance at the institution. The NCAA has in place a number of very specific rules concerning each of these areas, the violation of which carries significant sanctions. These penalties include the suspension of the sports program from NCAA competition, the disqualification of the individual athlete, the loss or restriction of future scholarships to the program in question, and similar penalties. Critics of NCAA governance often point to the companion rules regarding the manner in which teams may train, with up to 20 hours per week in practice, additional weight room and personal training obligations, and extensive in-season travel as conditions that entirely contradict a student athlete model.
The most prominent of these initiatives has been the attention paid to student athlete graduation rates, particularly among black athletes. As of late 2005, the NCAA states that 62% of all student athletes graduate within six years of their commencement; the graduation rate among the student body as a whole is 60%.
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