Broncos Athletics

What Is The NCAA? Here's A Primer

Dec. 29, 2003

By Myles Brand

As I complete my first year as president of the NCAA, I am frequently asked what has been the biggest surprise.

The answer is easy:

You would think that an organization that is somewhere in the news on a daily basis, and which is about to celebrate its centennial, would be better understood.

Not so.

To some, it is the member universities or colleges.

To others, it is the national office.

And to others still, it refers to the entire complex of member institutions with the assistance of the national office staff, which sets playing rules, conducts championships, legislates on competitive equity, and investigates and enforces violations.

Using the term "NCAA" to define all this has resulted in ambiguity and it has led to great misunderstanding.

I can tell you this:

The NCAA is a voluntary membership association made up of more than 1,000 universities and colleges. They are divided - actually self-elected - into Divisions I, II and III, distinguished by athletics scholarship support and other criteria.

Division I is further subdivided into I-A, I-AA and I-AAA in football, with the latter subdivision not fielding football in Division I at all. Division I-A contains 117 schools with the highest-profile athletics programs.

The member institutions retain a great deal of autonomy and decision-making. The association has only the powers ceded to it by the member universities and colleges.

The Division I-A universities, through their presidents, have retained decision-making authority and control of postseason football.

The Bowl Championship Series is wholly independent of the NCAA. It is made up of approximately half of those institutions that are members of Division I-A, and that have come together to designate a football champion. The NCAA has no authority over the BCS.

Meanwhile, the national office, located in Indianapolis, consists of staff members who carry out the policies set by the member institutions and their representatives.

Why is it important to make these distinctions?

Because not to do so leads to sloppy thinking and incorrect assessments of responsibility.

There are problems in intercollegiate athletics, both in terms of long-term policies and particular cases. The first step in solving these problems is to understand where to look for solutions.

If there is a problem about a major issue facing NCAA members, such as conference alignment, it makes no sense to focus on the national office.

If there is a problem about the implementation of policy, such as overly legalistic and inflexible application of rules, it makes no sense to focus on the member universities, since that is a national office issue.

By using "the NCAA" indiscriminately, we obscure the issues and mislead others.

There is also great confusion and misunderstanding about the role of the NCAA president.

Contrary to what many may think, the president of the NCAA is not the czar of college sports. I am not a league commissioner, in the sense of professional sports. Rather, I oversee the national office and implementation of policy and rules adopted by the membership.

Of course, like the president of any membership organization, I have the power of persuasion, both internally in the association and externally to the general public - that is, the bully pulpit.

When the time comes to turn over the reins to my successor, I hope that the surprise he or she finds is that the confusion has ceased, and the differences among the members of the NCAA, the national office, and the association as a corporate entity, are well understood by the public and the media.