The History of the NCAA

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), a nonprofit organization, regulates student-athletes from up to 1,268 North American conferences and institutions. Also, the NCAA organizes the athletic programs of universities and colleges in Canada and the United States and aids more than 480,000 college student-athletes who compete yearly in college sports. The organization’s headquarters is in Indianapolis, Indiana.


In 1852, intercollegiate sports began in the United States when crews from Yale and Harvard universities met in a challenging race in rowing. As rowing continued to be the preeminent sport in the nation into the late-1800s, several initial discussions about collegiate athletic purpose and eligibility were resolved through organizations such as the Intercollegiate Rowing Association and the Rowing Association of American Colleges. As other sports appeared, distinctly basketball and football, many of these same standards and concepts were adopted. Football, especially, started to rise as a marquee sport, though the game’s rules were in constant flux and frequently had to be adapted for every contest.

The NCAA was formed from two White House conferences held by President Theodore Roosevelt at the start of the 20th century as a response to frequent injuries and deaths in college football, which prompted many universities and colleges to suspend the sport. Succeeding those White House conferences and the reformations that resulted, Chancellor Henry MacCracken of New York University coordinated a meeting of 13 universities and colleges to initiate alterations in football playing rules. At a follow-up meeting in New York, on December 28, 1905, 62 higher-education institutions became original affiliates of the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States (IAAUS). On March 31, 1906, the IAAUS was officially established and, in 1910, adopted its present title, the NCAA.

For many years, the NCAA was a rules-making body and a discussion group. Still, in 1921, the first-ever NCAA national championship was held: the National Collegiate Track and Field Championships. Steadily, more championships were created, and more rules committees were established, counting in a basketball championship in 1939.

A series of trials brought the NCAA to a predicament after World War II. The “Sanity Code” used to set guidelines for financial aid and recruiting failed to manage abuses, and the Association had to search for more effective ways to cut its membership. Postseason football matches were doubling with little regulation, and member schools were more apprehensive about how television would influence football attendance.

The complexity of those predicaments and the growth in championships and membership confirmed the demand for full-time professional leadership. Formerly a part-time executive assistant, Walter Byers was elected executive director in 1951, and in 1952, a national headquarters was instituted in Kansas City, Missouri.

Byers didn’t waste time setting his mark on the Association. A program to regulate live television of football competitions was approved, legislation was adopted governing postseason bowl games, and the yearly Convention appointed enforcement powers to the Association’s Council. 

a football on a white patch on the field

The 1970s–Present

NCAA logo

The reach of the country’s athletics programs deviated as college athletics grew, pushing the NCAA to design a structure that recognized different levels of emphasis. In 1973, the membership was classified into three competitive and legislative divisions—I, II, and III. Five years in 1978, Division I members decided to form subdivisions I-A and I-AA.

Until the 1980s, only the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW), with almost 1,000 member schools, governed women’s athletics instead of the NCAA. The AIAW was in a vulnerable situation that accelerated conflicts with the association in the early-1980s. After a one-year overlap in which both associations coordinated women’s championships, the AIAW ceased operation. Most member schools resumed their women’s athletics programs under the NCAA. All NCAA divisions offered national championship matches for women’s athletics by 1982. In 1983, the 75th Convention passed an expansion planning women’s athletic program services and endorsed a women’s championship program.

Televised college football, by the 1980s, had become the NCAA’s bigger source of income. The Board of Regents of the University of Georgia Athletic Association and the University of Oklahoma filed a lawsuit against the NCAA in September 1981 in the district court in Oklahoma. In September 1982, the court decided in favor of the plaintiffs. It forbade the NCAA from administering the contract. The Association appealed to the United States Supreme Court, but in 1984, lost in a 7–2 ruling.

The NCAA was sued in 1999 for discriminating against female players and systematically providing men in graduate school more waivers to compete in college sports than a woman. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Association wasn’t subject to that law without evaluating the merits of the discrimination allegation.

Over the last twenty years, recruiting international athletes has grown as a trend between NCAA institutions. Several of these students arrive in the U.S. with high aspirations and academic expectations.

The NCAA set a record of $989 million in net revenue in 2014.