- Historical Background
- Early and Modern-Day Development
- NCAA v. Board of Regents
- Title IX
- Current Controversies
The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is a voluntary, unincorporated association that organizes the intercollegiate athletic programs of its membership, which includes more than 1,200 colleges and universities. As the governing body of intercollegiate sports in the United States, the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s objectives include regulation and promotion of playing rules, of standards of amateurism and academic eligibility, and of various relationships between student-athletes, coaches, and the institutions on whose behalf they compete. This is accomplished by classifying the 1,200-plus-member institution sports programs into Divisions I, II, and III, which reflect the scale and stature of a given institution’s athletic programs. This entry addresses the history and impact of the National Collegiate Athletic Association on intercollegiate athletics in the United States.
The beginning of intercollegiate athletics in the United States dates to the Harvard–Yale rivalry of the 19th century, which was modeled after competitions between Oxford and Cambridge in England. During these early years, students were in charge of every aspect of athletics, including coaching. One of the earliest such events was a major rowing regatta between Harvard and Yale, sponsored by the Elkins Rail Line, in which Harvard is purported to have tried to gain an advantage by using a coxswain who was not a student. In the first collegiate football game, Rutgers beat Princeton with a football team that included three freshmen who were failing algebra. Cheating and gambling were known to be rampant during the latter part of this era.
The early commercialization and popularity of these athletic competitions caused much debate among academics about the role of sports on campuses. When students requested financial support from their schools for coaching professionals and facilities, it was viewed by a good many people as an opportunity for universities to have greater influence over the sports activities of their students. However, with official support from schools and alumni, the beginning of the 20th century saw intercollegiate athletics become far more organized and competitive. Despite official support, as more and more institutions began play, schools struggled with their oversight and policing of collegiate athletics, especially in the sport of football.
One result of this growth was the development of new, aggressive styles of play that led to new types of injuries and, in some cases, deaths. In 1905 alone, there were 18 deaths and more than 100 major injuries attributed to college football. This prompted President Theodore Roosevelt to call for a White House conference on football. The needs for safety and oversight were two of the driving concerns that prompted Henry M. MacCracken, chancellor of New York University, to convene a meeting of 13 academic institutions for the purpose of modifying, unifying, and updating football rules. Within a few weeks after this late 1905 meeting, the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States (IAAUS) was founded. Before the decade was out, the IAAUS had become the NCAA and had grown to include 62 member schools.
Early and Modern-Day Development
During its early years, the National Collegiate Athletic Association did not assume an increased role in the governance of college athletics. Rather, the NCAA helped expand the catalog of athletic offerings of member schools by developing championships in a variety of sports. At the same time, the National Collegiate Athletic Association struggled with a litany of abuses, including overcommercialization, cheating, academic fraud, student-athlete welfare, and gambling. A report issued in 1929 by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Education acknowledged that these abuses were the results of the increasing popularity of college sports.
Things began to change rapidly in the years following World War II, as access to higher education increased, and college enrollments reached historic levels. With more people attending college than ever before, the popularity of college sports also increased. Accordingly, the National Collegiate Athletic Association had to take action. In 1948, the NCAA made its first attempt to govern and investigate college sports, by issuing the so-called Sanity Code. The code was intended to stem the rise of immoral recruiting practices, and it created a Constitutional Compliance Committee to interpret rules and investigate possible violations. Another important transformation took place in 1951, when Walter Byers became the first full-time executive director of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. With Byers in a leadership role, a position he held until his retirement in 1988, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) established its headquarters in Kansas City. From there, Byers and the National Collegiate Athletic Association began a significant period of organizational growth, power, and independence. Among the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s first interests was to establish a significant revenue stream. This much was accomplished through their negotiating a series of national broadcast contracts for college football.
Thanks to several sports betting scandals, Byers also found that he had the capacity and opportunity to expand the organization’s investigative and enforcement powers. By the 1970s, the NCAA had increased its authority, and it began to come under criticism for the unfair and arbitrary exercise of its power. In response to this criticism, the National Collegiate Athletic Association formed a committee in 1973 that was charged with examining the enforcement process; the eventual result of this committee’s work was the division of the investigative and prosecutorial roles of the Committee on Infractions.
Still, the National Collegiate Athletic Association continued to expand its staff charged with investigation and prosecution and broadened its authority to adjudicate complaints. During this period, however, the NCAA was subject to complaints, from all manner of critics, over enforcement practices. Some in the media and academic community argued the National Collegiate Athletic Association was doing too little to curb the abuses in collegiate sports; on the other side of the criticism were some who believed the NCAA was grossly overstepping any authority it had and that expanded investigative and enforcement powers threatened the independence of universities to administer their own athletic programs.
By the late 1970s, universities in the South and Southwest complained of unfair targeting compared to older schools in the East and Midwest, which prompted the U.S. House of Representatives to hold hearings on alleged inequities of the NCAA’s enforcement process. This criticism continued to be leveled at the National Collegiate Athletic Association into the 1980s and 1990s, a period during which the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s most severe sanction, the so-called Death Penalty, called for a ban on competition for repeated major rules infractions, such as was applied in 1985 against the football team at Southern Methodist University.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association addressed another competitive and economic imbalance in governance in the early 1970s when its membership split into three divisions. The divisions were reflective of the competitive orientation of each institution; that is, they grouped similar institutions based on their sizes. The grouping also resolved a primary complaint among major college sports programs that their representation and power inside the NCAA had become diluted by schools with far more modest athletic ambitions. Under the terms of the division, the NCAA created Division I for universities offering numerous and well-funded sports programs, Division II for regional schools with more modest funding and competitive goals, and Division III for universities and colleges not offering athletic scholarships. These divisions were further stratified when Division I was split into three subdivisions in the 1990s.
Among the other significant transformations concerning the modern development of the National Collegiate Athletic Association was a change in the organization’s governing structure during the 1980s. In June 1985, university presidents, whose prior involvement in the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s activities was often spotty at best, called a special convention. Over the course of the better part of the next decade, the Presidents Commission restructured the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s governance, adding an executive committee and board of directors for each division. The last 25 years have seen university presidents take a much more active role in the administration of the NCAA, largely supplanting athletic administrators as the driving force inside the organization. Yet, this period of increased power of university presidents within the National Collegiate Athletic Association has been legally tumultuous, with several major court controversies delimiting the legal and economic reach of the organization.
NCAA v. Board of Regents
One of the most significant legal decisions related to the NCAA took place in the early-to-mid-1980s, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma and University of Georgia Athletic Association. In 1981, the National Collegiate Athletic Association sought to limit the number of games that universities could have televised as part of its contract with the American Broadcasting Company (ABC). The National Collegiate Athletic Association also prohibited universities from selling the television rights of their other football games to other broadcast entities. This was a significant impediment, because a number of schools had, by then, become reliant on both the revenue and the publicity their programs received from these television appearances.
In response, the members of almost 60 major college football schools formed the College Football Association (CFA). The CFA, which was originally organized to promote the interests of major football- playing colleges within the National Collegiate Athletic Association structure, claimed that it should have a weightier part in the formulation of football television policy than it had at that time. It consequently negotiated a contract with the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) that would have permitted the opportunity for more colleges to appear on television and, thereby, increased revenues for CFA members.
The NCAA responded with an announcement that it would take disciplinary action against any CFA member that complied with the CFA–NBC contract. This reaction led to the beginning of a long period of legal wrangles, starting with the naming of the Universities of Oklahoma and Georgia as plaintiffs in a federal trial court action. The court maintained that the National Collegiate Athletic Association controls over televised college football games violated Section 1 of the Sherman Antitrust Act.
A federal trial court in Oklahoma decided that the NCAA restrained competition in the relevant market, that is, “live college football television,” by price fixing for particular telecasts, because it viewed exclusive network contracts as equivalent to a group boycott of other potential broadcasters. The court explained that the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s threat of sanctions against its member institutions embodied a threatened boycott of potential competitors, and its television plan artificially limited the production of televised college football.
On further review, the Tenth Circuit affirmed that the NCAA violated the Sherman Act, because its television plan constituted some form of price fixing that, even if not illegal, placed an anticompetitive limitation on price. The court added that any procompetitive attributes of the plan did not qualify as sufficient justifications for its continuation. Subsequently, the Supreme Court affirmed in favor of the plaintiffs, causing the National Collegiate Athletic Association to lose economic control of its college football television revenues. By the end of its trial run, National Collegiate Athletic Association v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma and University of Georgia Athletic Association demonstrated that the National Collegiate Athletic Association possessed very limited antitrust protection, which did little to stave off future suits over its exercise of power or exclusivity against its members.
Without the control over the football television revenue it previously had, the NCAA became more dependent on the funds produced by its basketball tournament. The National Collegiate Athletic Association therefore undertook a major program of television rights sales and tournament sponsorship. However, as the NCAA became more dependent on basketball revenue, it came under greater criticism for being inequitable in its treatment of African Americans. One significant controversy in this area involved the freshman eligibility of student-athletes who scored poorly on standardized tests. Issues involving recruiting, amateurism, gambling, and enforcement have continued to confront the National Collegiate Athletic Association, as the presidents moved toward cost control as a way of keeping these runaway processes in check.
The other topic that has consumed the NCAA as a body is the subject of gender equity and compliance with Title IX. While not directly an NCAA matter, no more controversial issue has emerged in the context of collegiate athletics than the discussion surrounding Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Title IX, a federal statute, was signed into law in order to prohibit sex discrimination in education programs that receive financial assistance from the federal government. Despite the popular link between Title IX and Athletics programs, the statute did not originally address or otherwise reference athletics. Following a two-year comment period on Title IX, during which a majority of the nearly 10,000 comments received referred to athletics, Congress passed Section 844 of the Education Amendments of 1974. This so-called Javits Amendment included intercollegiate athletics as part of Title IX. At the same time, in a decision that would have profound consequences in later years, the Senate dropped an amendment to exempt revenue-producing sports from Title IX.
By the 1980s, in part due to the social implications of Title IX, issues surrounding opportunities and equity in expenditures across women’s sports began to heat up. In the interim, despite a series of new regulations and refinements, the expanded opportunities afforded to women have been controversial, because the cost of women’s programs is disproportionate to the revenue generated by a majority of women’s teams, even in prominent sports such as basketball. Most of the disagreement concerns whether all athletic programs should be self-sufficient within the institution or whether revenue-producing male sports should have to distribute their funds to women’s sports. Other court cases have led to other controversies; for example, Grove City College v. Bell (1984) and National Collegiate Athletic Association v. Smith (1999) raised new questions about the relationship between federal funding and Title IX coverage.
The reach and role of athletics in the academy is at least as old as ancient Greece, where athletic competition was as important as rhetoric and mathematics as a means to strength and health, and ancient Rome, where it was believed that athletics was but a means to developing and maintaining capable soldiers. Today, an increased concern over the declining scholastic progress of studentathletes, especially those in high-profile sports like football and basketball, has led a growing number of universities and colleges to increase institutional oversight of their athletic departments. Today’s college sports atmosphere is defined by a balance between offering quality educational opportunities for student-athletes and offering quality sports teams for students and alumni. It is a balance between college athletics as a part of business and of society.
As the NCAA has grown in size and stature, it has had to confront many judicial hurdles. In this way, the National Collegiate Athletic Association experienced much progress, such as when the Supreme Court reasoned that the NCAA was not a state actor in National Collegiate Athletic Association v. Tarkanian (1988) and when the Court approved the NCAA’s ability to perform drug testing of student-athletes in its championship contests in Hill v. National Collegiate Athletic Association (1994). Still, the NCAA has also been on the losing side of a number of key antitrust suits, the most significant of which was Law v. National Collegiate Athletic Association (1998), which involved a rule capping the pay of assistant basketball coaches.
Payment to college athletes has been another thorny issue for the NCAA in recent years, and there have been attempts to organize and elevate student-athletes into collective bargaining entities. Although largely unsuccessful, the calls have continued as revenues from sponsorship, bowl games, and television viewership have grown. The arguable inequity of an athlete receiving no direct financial benefit, apart from a scholarship, while schools and the National Collegiate Athletic Association itself collect all revenues, has become a topic of increasing conversation.
Lee H. Igel and Robert A. Boland
See also Civil Rights Act of 1964; Sports Programming and Scheduling
Smith, R. K. (2000). A brief history of the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s role in regulating intercollegiate athletics. Marquette Sports Law Journal, 11(1), 9–22.
Sperber, M. (1998). Onward to victory: The crises that shaped college sports. New York: Henry Holt.
Yaeger, D. (1991). Undue process: The NCAA’s injustice for all. Champaign, IL: Sagamore.
Zimbalist, A. (1999). Unpaid professionals: Commercialism and conflict in big-time college sports. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Grove City College v. Bell, 465 U.S. 555 (1984).
Hill v. NCAA, 7 Cal. 4th 1 (1994).
Law v. NCAA, 134 F.3d 1010 (10th Cir. 1998).
NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma and University of Georgia Athletic Association, 468 U.S. 85 (1984).
NCAA v. Smith, 525 U.S. 459 (1999).
NCAA v. Tarkanian, 488 U.S. 179 (1988).
Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, 20 U.S.C. § 1681 et seq. (1972).