The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA)[a] is a nonprofit organization that regulates student athletes from 1,268 North American institutions and conferences. It also organizes the athletic programs of many colleges and universities in the United States and Canada, and helps more than 480,000 college student-athletes who compete annually in college sports. The organization is headquartered in Indianapolis, Indiana.
In its 2016–17 fiscal year the NCAA took in $1.06 billion in revenue, over 82% of which was generated by the Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament.
In August 1973, the current three-division system of Division I, Division II, and Division III was adopted by the NCAA membership in a special convention. Under NCAA rules, Division I and Division II schools can offer scholarships to athletes for playing a sport. Division III schools may not offer any athletic scholarships. Generally, larger schools compete in Division I and smaller schools in II and III. Division I football was further divided into I-A and I-AA in 1978. Subsequently, the term “Division I-AAA” was briefly added to delineate Division I schools which do not field a football program at all, but that term is no longer officially used by the NCAA. In 2006, Divisions I-A and I-AA were respectively renamed the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) and Football Championship Subdivision (FCS).
Controversially, the NCAA severely caps the benefits that collegiate athletes can receive from their schools. There is a consensus among economists that these caps for men’s basketball and football players benefit the athletes’ schools (through rent-seeking) at the expense of the athletes.
Intercollegiate sports began in the US in 1852 when crews from Harvard and Yale universities met in a challenge race in the sport of rowing. As rowing remained the preeminent sport in the country into the late-1800s, many of the initial debates about collegiate athletic eligibility and purpose were settled through organizations like the Rowing Association of American Colleges and the Intercollegiate Rowing Association. As other sports emerged, notably football and basketball, many of these same concepts and standards were adopted. Football, in particular, began to emerge as a marquee sport, but the rules of the game itself were in constant flux and often had to be adapted for each contest.
The NCAA dates its formation to two White House conferences convened by President Theodore Roosevelt in the early 20th century in response to repeated injuries and deaths in college football which had “prompted many college and universities to discontinue the sport.” Following those White House meetings and the reforms which had resulted, Chancellor Henry MacCracken of New York University organized a meeting of 13 colleges and universities to initiate changes in football playing rules; at a follow-on meeting on December 28, 1905 in New York, 62 higher-education institutions became charter members of the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States (IAAUS). The IAAUS was officially established on March 31, 1906, and took its present name, the NCAA, in 1910.
For several years, the NCAA was a discussion group and rules-making body, but in 1921, the first NCAA national championship was conducted: the National Collegiate Track and Field Championships. Gradually, more rules committees were formed and more championships were created, including a basketball championship in 1939.
A series of crises brought the NCAA to a crossroads after World War II. The “Sanity Code” – adopted to establish guidelines for recruiting and financial aid – failed to curb abuses. Postseason football games were multiplying with little control, and member schools were increasingly concerned about how the new medium of television would affect football attendance.
The complexity of those problems and the growth in membership and championships demonstrated the need for full-time professional leadership. Walter Byers, previously a part-time executive assistant, was named executive director in 1951, and a national headquarters was established in Kansas City, Missouri in 1952.
Byers wasted no time placing his stamp on the Association. A program to control live television of football games was approved, the annual Convention delegated enforcement powers to the Association’s Council, and legislation was adopted governing postseason bowl games.
As college athletics grew, the scope of the nation’s athletics programs diverged, forcing the NCAA to create a structure that recognized varying levels of emphasis. In 1973, the association’s membership was divided into three legislative and competitive divisions – I, II, and III. Five years later in 1978, Division I members voted to create subdivisions I-A and I-AA (renamed the Football Bowl Subdivision and the Football Championship Subdivision in 2006) in football.
Until the 1980s, the association did not govern women’s athletics. Instead, the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW), with nearly 1,000 member schools, governed women’s collegiate sports in the United States. The AIAW was in a vulnerable position that precipitated conflicts with the NCAA in the early-1980s. Following a one-year overlap in which both organizations staged women’s championships, the AIAW discontinued operation, and most member schools continued their women’s athletics programs under the governance of the NCAA. By 1982 all divisions of the NCAA offered national championship events for women’s athletics. A year later in 1983, the 75th Convention approved an expansion to plan women’s athletic program services and pushed for a women’s championship program.
By the 1980s, televised college football had become a larger source of income for the NCAA. In September 1981, the Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma and the University of Georgia Athletic Association filed suit against the NCAA in district court in Oklahoma. The plaintiffs stated that the NCAA’s football television plan constituted price fixing, output restraints, boycott, and monopolizing, all of which were illegal under the Sherman Act. The NCAA argued that its pro-competitive and non-commercial justifications for the plan – protection of live gate, maintenance of competitive balance among NCAA member institutions, and the creation of a more attractive “product” to compete with other forms of entertainment – combined to make the plan reasonable. In September 1982, the district court found in favour of the plaintiffs, ruling that the plan violated antitrust laws. It enjoined the association from enforcing the contract. The NCAA appealed all the way to the United States Supreme Court, but lost in 1984 in a 7–2 ruling NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma. (If the television contracts the NCAA had with ABC, CBS, and ESPN had remained in effect for the 1984 season, they would have generated some $73.6 million for the association and its members.)
In 1999, the NCAA was sued for discriminating against female athletes under Title IX for systematically giving men in graduate school more waivers than a woman to participate in college sports. In National Collegiate Athletic Association v. Smith, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the NCAA was not subject to that law, without reviewing the merits of the discrimination claim.
Over the last two decades recruiting international athletes has become a growing trend among NCAA institutions. For example, most German athletes outside of Germany are based at US universities. For many European athletes, the American universities are the only option to pursue an academic and athletic career at the same time. Many of these students come to the US with high academic expectations and aspirations.
In 2009, Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada, became the NCAA’s first non-US member institution, joining Division II. In 2018, Division II membership approved allowing schools from Mexico to apply for membership; CETYS of Tijuana, Baja California expressed significant interest in joining at the time.
In 2014, the NCAA set a record high of a $989M in net revenue. Just shy of $1 billion, it is among the highest of all large sports organizations.
Notable court cases
- In the late-1940s, there were only two colleges in the country, Notre Dame and Pennsylvania, with national TV contracts, a considerable source of revenue. In 1951, the NCAA voted to prohibit any live TV broadcast of college football games during the season. No sooner had the NCAA voted to ban television than public outcry forced it to retreat. Instead, the NCAA voted to restrict the number of televised games for each team to stop the slide in gate attendance. University of Pennsylvania president Harold Stassen defied the monopoly and renewed its contract with ABC. Eventually, Penn dropped its suit when the NCAA, refusing Penn’s request that the U.S. Attorney General rule on the legality of the NCAA’s restrictive plan, threatened to expel the university from the association. Notre Dame continued televising its games through 1953, working around the ban by filming its games, then broadcasting them the next evening.
- In 1957, the Colorado Supreme Court dismissed a lawsuit filed by the family of deceased Trinidad College football player Ray Herbert Dennison. Despite suffering a lethal concussion injury on the field in a game versus Fort Lewis A&M College, Dennison was not entitled to any compensation because he was not under a contractual obligation to play football. Furthermore, the court stated that the “college did not receive a direct benefit from the activities, since the college was not in the football business and received no benefit from this field of recreation”.
- In 1977, prompted partly by the Tarkanian Case, the US Congress initiated an investigation into the NCAA. It, combined with Tarkanian’s case, forced the NCAA’s internal files into the public record.
- In 1998, the NCAA settled a $2.5 million lawsuit filed by former UNLV basketball coach, Jerry Tarkanian. Tarkanian sued the NCAA after he was forced to resign from UNLV, where he had been head coach from 1975 to 1992. The suit claimed the agency singled him out, penalizing the university’s basketball program three times in that span. Tarkanian said “They can never, ever, make up for all the pain and agony they caused me. All I can say is that for 25 years they beat the hell out of me”. The NCAA said that it regretted the long battle and it now has more understanding of Tarkanian’s position and that the case has changed the enforcement process for the better.
- In 1999, the NCAA was sued for discriminating against female athletes under Title IX for systematically giving men in graduate school more waivers than a woman to participate in college sports. In National Collegiate Athletic Association v. Smith, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the NCAA was not subject to that law, without reviewing the merits of the discrimination claim.
- In 2007, the case of White et al. v. NCAA was brought by former NCAA student-athletes Jason White, Brian Pollack, Jovan Harris, and Chris Craig as a class action lawsuit. They argued that the NCAA’s current limits on a full scholarship or grant-in-aid was a violation of federal antitrust laws. Their reasoning was that in the absence of such a limit, NCAA member schools would be free to offer any financial aid packages they desired to recruit the student and athlete. The NCAA settled before a ruling by the court, by agreeing to set up the Former Student-Athlete Fund to “assist qualified candidates applying for receipt of career development expenses and/or reimbursement of educational expenses under the terms of the agreement with plaintiffs in a federal antitrust lawsuit.”
- In 2013, Jay Bilas claimed that the NCAA was taking advantage of individual players through jersey sales in its store. Specifically, he typed the names of several top college football players, among them Tajh Boyd, Teddy Bridgewater, Jadeveon Clowney, Johnny Manziel, and AJ McCarron, into the search engine of the NCAA’s official online store. The search results returned corresponding numbered team jerseys. The NCAA subsequently removed the team jerseys listed on its site.
- In March 2014, four players filed a class action antitrust lawsuit, alleging that the NCAA and its five dominant conferences are an “unlawful cartel”. The suit charges that NCAA caps on the value of athletic scholarships have “illegally restricted the earning power of football and men’s basketball players while making billions off their labor”. Tulane University Sports Law Program Director Gabe Feldman called the suit “an instantly credible threat to the NCAA.” On September 30, 2015, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that limiting compensation to the cost of an athlete’s attendance at a university was sufficient. It simultaneously ruled against a federal judge’s proposal to pay student athletes $5,000 per year in deferred compensation.
- In August 2015, the National Labor Relations Board reversed a decision settled in the prior year that classified members of Northwestern University’s scholarship football players as employees, thus, granting them the right to collectively bargain for their rights. The unionization efforts were a direct effort led by the College Athletes Player Association and Kain Colter, who operated with the support of the United Steelworkers group. The case was ultimately struck down due to difficulties in applying the ruling across both public and private institutions. The NCAA made several improvements to the value of athletic scholarships and the quality of healthcare coverage in response to this movement by the Northwestern football players. These reforms included guaranteeing the entire four years of scholarship in the event of a career-ending injury, the implementation of “cost of attendance” stipends, the institution of “unlimited” athlete meal plans, and protections for the name, image, and likeness of athletes by third parties such as Electronic Arts.
The modern era of the NCAA began in July 1955 when its executive director, Kansas City, Missouri native Walter Byers, moved the organization’s headquarters from the LaSalle Hotel in Chicago (where its offices were shared by the headquarters of the Big Ten Conference) to the Fairmount Building in Downtown Kansas City. The move was intended to separate the NCAA from the direct influence of any individual conference and keep it centrally located.
The Fairmount was a block from Municipal Auditorium which had hosted Final Four games in 1940, 1941, and 1942. After Byers moved to Kansas City, the championships would be held in Municipal Auditorium in 1953, 1954, 1955, 1957, 1961, and 1964.
The Fairmount office consisted of three rooms with no air conditioning. Byers’ staff consisted of four people: an assistant, two secretaries, and a bookkeeper.
In 1964, it moved three blocks away to offices in the Midland Theatre. In 1973, it moved to Shawnee Mission Parkway in suburban Mission, Kansas in a $1.2 million building on 3.4 acres (14,000 m2). In 1989, it moved 6 miles (9.7 km) farther south to Overland Park, Kansas. The new building was on 11.35 acres (45,900 m2) and had 130,000 square feet (12,000 m2) of space.
The NCAA was dissatisfied with its Johnson County, Kansas suburban location, noting that its location on the south edges of the Kansas City suburbs was more than 40 minutes from Kansas City International Airport. They also noted that the suburban location was not drawing visitors to its new visitors’ centre.
In 1997, it asked for bids for a new headquarters. Various cities competed for a new headquarters with the two finalists being Kansas City and Indianapolis. Kansas City proposed to relocate the NCAA back downtown near the Crown Center complex and would locate the visitors’ centre in Union Station. However Kansas City’s main sports venue Kemper Arena was nearly 30 years old. Indianapolis argued that it was in fact more central than Kansas City in that two-thirds of the members are east of the Mississippi River. The 50,000-seat RCA Dome far eclipsed the 17,000-seat Kemper Arena. In 1999, the NCAA moved its 300-member staff to its new headquarters in the White River State Park in a four-story 140,000-square-foot (13,000 m2) facility on the west edge of downtown Indianapolis, Indiana. Adjacent to the headquarters is the 35,000-square-foot (3,300 m2) NCAA Hall of Champions.