The NCAA was founded in 1906 as the Intercollegiate Athletic Association, renamed the National Collegiate Athletic Association in 1910, to provide uniform rules for football, primarily, and other sporting activities for colleges and universities. It was hoped the uniform rules for football would reduce the carnage, literally the number of deaths and serious injuries, that had become a part of the game at that time, and that threatened the continuance of football as an intercollegiate sport. A second founding purpose of the NCAA was to decrease the commercialization of intercollegiate sport that produced a win at all cost approach that called into question the integrity of the games themselves and the colleges and universities that sponsored them. The management of National Championship competition and student athlete eligibility actually came much later in its history.
For more than four decades, though, the NCAA had essentially no ability to enforce its limited rules. Their capacity for enforcement, though, has continued to increase dramatically from that time to the present. It is not coincidental, in my opinion, that its ability to enforce its rules of operation came about at the same time it negotiated its first $1 million+ contract to televise football games (mandate to reduce commercialization?) in the 1950s, and its ability to enforce its rules has increased along with its revenue.
It is also interesting to note that the organization has been under considerable scrutiny for most of those nearly 70 years for their inability to enforce their rules fairly, as well as its inability to control commercialization of intercollegiate sport. I suggest the latter factor has been completely abandoned since that first large television contract, and the NCAA has actually been a world leader in the commercialization of intercollegiate sport.
The question before us, though, is what is the core, the center, of the NCAA’s mission and goals today? Are they still primarily focused on the original goals of developing uniform playing rules and reduction of commercialization of sport? Obviously, conducting National Championship events and establishing standards for student athlete eligibility have been added to those original goals. Do those four purposes identify the mission of the NCAA? That question is especially pertinent at this moment, I suggest, as the intercollegiate sports world attempts to wade through the deep waters produced by the world’s reaction to the latest coronavirus.
What is the state of current NCAA regulation? One look at a compliance Manual makes it abundantly clear regulation is an immense part of NCAA operation. The highly detailed 256 page or so Manual for NCAA Division II, for example, is just the basis for regulation of that division. On-line information greatly expands on those regulations, and in some cases supersedes the written Manual. Neither does the Manual include every NCAA requirement that must be completed for a school to remain in good standing with the NCAA. Good standing is required for a school to participate in annual National Championship events, which is for most schools a primary reason for membership.
A partial list of NCAA requirements for Division II membership (most but not all included in the Manual), that are clearly outside even the most generous view of the four priorities described above include:
Completion of a Self-Study every five years
Appointment of a Diversity and Inclusion Officer
Appointment of a Senior Women’s Administrator
Completion of a Sexual Violence Education program for every student athlete and athletic
department staff member every year
Appointment of a Health Care Administrator
Appointment of a Team Physician for independent medical care
Adherence to ever evolving and growing medical and performance training standards including:
NCAA concussion management plan and reporting protocols
NCAA sickle cell anemia management protocols
Today, highly detailed requirements for resocialization of collegiate athletes from COVID 19
It is, obviously, a significant list of requirements for membership that are in addition to the regulations designed to insure the eligibility of student athletes, control the actions of coaches on the field and court and as they recruit, and demonstrate institutional control of all those activities. Many of the additional requirements have been added in recent years. The last item in the list of requirements mentioned, of course, has been constructed in the last twelve months. So, regulation is central to NCAA operation, and contained in its original goals. But do its current emphases address uniform rules, academic integrity (athletes are actually students), non-commercialization of sport, and conducting National Championships? Or, do its current emphases address entirely different matters, and does that change the very mission and goals of the NCAA?
The modern categories of NCAA regulation that are not included in the traditional four elements essentially fall into two categories, 1; student athlete health and welfare, and 2; equality, equity, and social justice issues. A description of the development of those two areas of regulation present insight, I suggest, into the heart of the NCAA.
Student athlete health and welfare has traditionally been managed by each individual school. It is quite a recent development that the NCAA has become involved in any issue in this category, but once they started down the path of regulation of student athlete health and welfare the quantity of regulation escalated quickly. The mandates range from a required physical examination prior to participation in athletically related physical activities (certainly a reasonable thing), to mandatory sickle cell anemia testing for all student athletes (although students and/or their families are allowed to sign a form indicating they choose not to test). While the physical examination is reasonable for college athletes the requirement has been extended to workouts for prospective student athletes. In other words, before a high school student can, according to NCAA regulations, engage in a workout on a college campus he/she must provide proof of a recent physical examination clearly the student to participate in that activity.
The basic question that should be answered is who cares the most for the health and welfare of each student athlete, and who can best provide the highest quality care? Also, who should be responsible for the health and welfare of the student athlete? In descending order, I suggest that will usually be the family of the student, the student him/herself, and then the college or university. A very large, distant, impersonal entity, like the NCAA, can hardly care for any individual as can those closest to and most personally involved with the student. The NCAA has, though, assumed authority for the health and welfare of student athletes although they take no responsibility for their health and welfare. Recent court cases over concussions may explain some of the NCAA’s interest in this matter. The final answer to the question, though, should not be based on legal concerns, but rather determined by who can best provide the highest level of care to the health and welfare of a student athlete. I believe the answer is clear, the family and then the school will provide the highest quality care, and NCAA meddling in this matter is not designed to help students but rather provide legal “cover” for the NCAA along with provide an additional opportunity to regulate member schools.
It is worth noting that the NCAA does not directly develop the standards for student athlete health and welfare. An outside organization, the Sport Science Institute (SSI), has been established expressly for the purpose of developing those standards. SSI produces concussion management standards, the previously mentioned physical examination requirements, and now the resocialization standards following the widespread but widely varying coronavirus measures. SSI also develops the protocols for drug testing of NCAA athletes and administers the tests themselves.
In the case of NCAA requirements for coronavirus management schools were left with no alternative but to cancel most, if not all, fall sport activities. It was financially and logistically impossible to meet the NCAA requirements, particularly because they were in direct conflict with current medical and public health standards for testing individuals who do not have symptoms of the virus. I contend the testing requirements were and are staggeringly illogical and demonstrably ineffective. For instance, how will testing 25% of team members every two weeks prevent the spread of the infection should one individual contract the illness? I am not a mathematician but think the odds of reducing the spread of the illness with that testing protocol are extremely low. It was and is, though, the testing requirement for a number of NCAA sports teams. Even testing every student athlete every week, the requirement for other teams, provides little protection to the students, I contend, with a disproportionate burden placed on the schools. Why would such inane standards be put in place? Is it actually an expectation it will create a safe environment for student athletes, or that we “have to do something so we demonstrate we are serious about this health threat”, or is there another reason, such as the necessity of canceling as many National Championship events as possible because of financial concerns? I have no definite answer to the question, just more questions. The only certainty I have is that a large, national organization that assumes massive control over the activities of its membership has the ability to do great harm to those members, and the extent of their control has not suddenly appeared with the coronavirus but has grown exponentially for decades.
The second area of modern regulation, equality, equity, and social justice issues have become perhaps an even more pervasive element of NCAA operation than student athlete health and welfare. The NCAA offers an immense quantity of programming on equality, equity, sexual preference, and gender identity every year, along with multiple race and/or gender based professional development opportunities. I believe it is fair to say this range of topics is the most dominant focus of the NCAA at this time. While it may be reasonable to ask why an organization tasked with management of intercollegiate athletics has this particular priority, what should be of greater significance, I suggest, is the point of view the NCAA holds on these matters and the lack of tolerance they display for any view not in line with their own.
The best examples of what I think are reasonable concerns for the NCAA’s lack of tolerance come from the position the NCAA has established for transgender competition. It is certainly necessary that the NCAA determines how transgender student athletes will compete in NCAA sponsored sports, and it is appropriate to note it is a complex and difficult issue. When the NCAA insists, however, that every institution agree with its view it has stepped over a line that I contend is well outside its authority. Two cases in point: First, the NCAA relocated Championship events from North Carolina not long ago because government agencies in that state insisted that all individuals use restrooms determined by their biological gender, rather than the gender they identified with. The North Carolina law is in direct conflict with the views of the NCAA. Second, the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament games scheduled for winter of 2021 in Boise, Idaho were relocated (the entire NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament has since been moved to the Indianapolis area, but that does change the cancelation of Boise hosting an event) because the Idaho State government has mandated high school students must compete against students of their birth gender. Boys who identify as girls are not allowed to compete against girls, but must compete against boys in the state of Idaho. Again, that Idaho law is in direct conflict with NCAA views.
The NCAA response to those scenarios will likely be that they allow any state, county, or city the right to establish whatever laws they deem right. The statements issued by the NCAA in those circumstances, though, and the actions of the NCAA, the use of quite substantial financial and social benefits of NCAA events to reward those who agree with them and punish those who do not is evidence the organization is in the business of controlling the ideas, thoughts, and actions of every entity with which they deal. It is irrefutable proof, I contend, that the NCAA forcefully supports particular societal ideology and is a proud member of and active participant in the “cancel culture”, aggressively attacking any person or entity with contrary views. Which means, if I do not like what you say or think, I will do everything in my power to force you to conform to my views or diminish you in every way possible. Who appointed the NCAA the moral and legal arbiter of any and all issues they choose to address? What qualifications does a sports organization bring to such an intricate task?
When an organization that is supposed to be in the business of managing intercollegiate sport delves into deep, complex societal matters it is on shaky ground at best. When that organization displays complete contempt for any view contrary to its own, when it operates with consummate arrogance that it possesses unquestioned understanding of those matters and assumes authority over the thoughts, views, and actions of all others, it is no longer at its heart a sports organization, but instead a regulatory agency that pursues a particular agenda outside sport. Perhaps the NCAA has become above all else a social activist organization.
My answer to the question presented in the title is obvious. The NCAA has become at least as much a regulatory agency as it is a sports organization. The unending rule changes, clarifications, and outright pivots in direction in their response to this coronavirus are yet another example of the unrelenting commitment to unending regulation. As a very bright person I work with regularly recently stated, you would think it is easy not to make rules. That is not the case. It is actually easy to make rules and very difficult not to make rules. The NCAA has a great deal to learn in that regard.