What Is the NCAA?

What Is the NCAA?
portrait of Tyler Epps
By Tyler Epps

Published on October 14, 2020

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The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is a membership-driven organization that governs intercollegiate athletics across three divisions (I, II, and III). Today, the NCAA consists of 1,098 colleges and universities and 102 athletic conferences. As the oldest and largest collegiate sanctioning organization, the NCAA has distributed billions of dollars to member institutions and represented college athletics for over a century.

What Is the NCAA?

Established in 1906, the NCAA was first formed to protect student-athletes from exploitative practices that were widespread at the time. However, a closer look reveals an additional reason — one related entirely to college football.

Amid growing fears that college football was too dangerous and on the verge of being abolished, football representatives gathered to develop new regulations and safety measures. This safety agreement led to the creation of the Intercollegiate Athletic Association, which would eventually be renamed the NCAA in 1910.

Today, more than 460,000 college athletes make up the NCAA.

Over the years, more and more colleges have developed athletic programs and joined the NCAA. Today, more than 460,000 college athletes make up the organization. As the NCAA continues to grow, the health and safety of its student-athletes remain a central focus. To address these issues, the NCAA is governed by over 150 committees.

NCAA rules are developed and maintained by more than 1,500 committee members hailing from nearly 450 institutions across the country. These representatives include a mix of athletic directors, college athletes, and college presidents, who introduce legislation and vote on topics related to health, safety, and sports rules.

The NCAA Board of Governors, however, is the highest governing body and supervises association-wide issues, such as determining where to allocate funds and upholding equal opportunity measures. Primarily composed of chancellors and presidents, the Board of Governors can implement policies that must be followed by all member schools across divisions.

Player Eligibility in the NCAA

Both college-bound and continuing student-athletes must meet academic standards to participate in NCAA sports. While Division I and Division II schools slightly differ in their minimum standards, both require incoming students to complete at least 16 core courses in high school and earn a qualifying SAT or ACT test score. These academic requirements include courses in English, math, natural or physical science, and social science.

Division I and Division II student-athletes must maintain full-time status, fulfill credit requirements, and have a cumulative GPA of at least 2.0

Continuing student-athletes must meet several academic standards to maintain their eligibility. Both Division I and Division II student-athletes must maintain full-time status, fulfill credit requirements, and have a cumulative GPA of at least 2.0. Division I student-athletes are also responsible for fulfilling a percentage of their degree requirements each academic year.

Because Division III schools do not offer athletic scholarships, these schools set their own admission and continuing eligibility requirements; however, all Division III student-athletes must maintain full-time status. Additionally, students applying to these schools do not need to register with the NCAA Eligibility Center.

NCAA-Sponsored Sports

Schools are designated as Division I, Division II, or Division III institutions based on their size, their athletic program budget, and their ability to award scholarships. These three divisions encompass 102 athletic conferences, which include nearly 20,000 teams.

The NCAA currently oversees 24 sports and awards 90 championships annually.

The NCAA currently oversees 24 sports and awards 90 championships annually. Some of the largest NCAA sports programs include basketball, football, soccer, and volleyball — most of which feature men's and women's teams.

NCAA basketball — the sport representing the most NCAA teams — includes nearly 2,200 men's and women's teams. Women's basketball teams make up more than 1,000 of these and actually outnumber men's basketball teams. In fact, across the NCAA, women's teams have consistently outnumbered men's teams since 1996-97. Today, there are more than 10,000 women's teams competing in NCAA championship sports.

The Value of College Sports

As a multibillion dollar industry, college sports generate vast amounts of revenue through endorsements, ticket sales, and television contracts. However, because the NCAA is a nonprofit organization, this revenue is allocated to a variety of student and institutional funds.

Each year, with the help of the NCAA, Division I and Division II member institutions distribute billions of dollars in athletic scholarships to more than 180,000 student-athletes. The NCAA also provides nearly $100 million to support student-athletes' essential needs related to college living, academics, and transportation.

The NCAA provides student-athletes with many leadership and professional development programs.

Beyond academic and financial support, the NCAA provides student-athletes with many leadership and professional development programs. College athletes seeking career advice and job opportunities can participate in the NCAA's After the Game Career Center, which prepares them to transition into life after collegiate sports. Students can also take advantage of the Student-Athlete Leadership Forum — a program designed to enhance professional growth and give participants an opportunity to build networking connections.

In addition to student-athlete support systems, the NCAA also allocates funding to higher education institutions, supplying hundreds of millions of dollars to member colleges and universities. The Academic Enhancement Fund, which receives approximately $50 million each year, is distributed among Division I schools to enhance their academic programs and support services.

While there are still many ways to further support and improve the lives of student-athletes, both financially and academically, the NCAA remains an integral organization for college-bound and continuing student-athletes across the country. As the NCAA continues to expand, member institutions and college athletes should continue to benefit from the organization's intercollegiate sports infrastructure.

Feature Image: Pete Saloutos / Getty Images

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