Welcome back to Failure to Monitor, a series about the NCAA, and how its sordid past shaped what it is today. Before we can talk about its past, we obviously have to talk about what the organization is, and how it started. Because with the NCAA, the scandals go back to day one. So join me, as I give you a brief overview of how the NCAA works, and how it started on its path towards domination.
If you missed part 1, check it out here
In the United States, most sports leagues started out pretty naturally. A sport began to gain popularity, teams popped up around the country, and eventually, some people got together so they could organize it all into a unified group. However, the formation of the NCAA looked a little bit different. Its founder wasn’t a college student, or an athlete, or even the president of a school. It was founded by the president of the United States. In 1905, president Teddy Roosevelt held a series of meetings with major universities with one goal in mind: saving college football. The sport back then looked nothing like it did today. At the time of its invention in the 1890s, it was a lot more like what we now know as rugby. Players rammed into each other over and over with absolutely no protection, which made severe injuries a common occurrence. In fact, players were dying on the field at a rate so fast that the very future of the sport was in jeopardy. This impending doom is what prompted President Roosevelt to hold these meetings. The most important outcome of these summits was the creation of the first national governing body for college sports in America: the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States. The group was set up to govern college sports made up of amateur athletes, although they eventually began to organize their own championships. This tenant of amateurism became the foundation of the league in the ensuing years, and it’s something that is going to come up quite often in this series. I’m assuming they realized that this wasn’t the catchiest name ever, so in 1910 they decided to take up the moniker that we know them by today: the National Collegiate Athletic Association, or NCAA.
So we know how it got started, but what is the NCAA actually? What do they actually do? Everyone loves to complain about it, but nobody seems to know what it actually is. The NCAA is a non-profit organization in charge of governing college sports and hosting national championships in each one. Well, except football, but we’ll save that story for another time. It is comprised of three different groups: The national office based in Indianapolis, the member institutions, represented by the Board of Governors, and the conferences that these institutions belong to. Even though including the schools and their conferences as separate groups seems redundant, they actually are very different. Conferences are separate organizations with their own sets of procedures and guidelines. In fact, the five largest conferences have the power to set their own rules without the NCAA’s approval in a few areas. When anyone talks about the NCAA, they almost always are referring to the national office. Led by President Mark Emmert, they are seen as the ones in charge, the people who are to blame for everything wrong in college sports. While he certainly is not blameless, as seen by his recent failings in dealing with gender inequality in the NCAA basketball tournaments, Emmert actually is responsible for much less than people think. He’s not so much an all-powerful dictator as he is a human shield. Much like the commissioners of professional sports leagues, Emmert has a group of bosses he reports to: the schools themselves. The Board of Governors that appoints the president is comprised of presidents and chancellors from the member institutions. This shadowy organizational structure isn’t by accident. Just like with pro sports, the people in power know that it’s much easier to blame one guy than something as abstract as a committee. Having the national office allows them to work in silence with almost no media attention. Every misstep or faux pas is met with fan outrage towards Emmert and the league office when in all actuality it could be their team’s president pulling the strings. So, for the sake of consistency, when I talk about the NCAA, know that I am referring to the national office.
This unique structure is what makes the NCAA’s history so important. It’s not a coincidence that it was literally founded as a result of national outrage. When a group appoints its own overseer, it creates an odd dynamic. In this case, the NCAA’s power comes from the fact that schools do what they say. Technically, nothing is stopping the more powerful schools from deciding that they don’t want to follow the rules. These are “amateur” athletes participating in extracurricular activities after all. You can’t just fine a state university whenever you want, and it’s not like cheating with respect to these sports is illegal in any way (well, most of the time). This means that the NCAA’s authority is based entirely on precedent. Precedent that has been primarily set over the years in the wake of scandals and lawsuits. The league governs through traditions and threats. They took the words of their founder to heart. They may not often speak softly, but, just like Teddy said, they always carry a big stick.
Next time, we’ll talk about the first chance the NCAA got to set such a precedent. A chance that they took and ran with all the way to death row.