Formation and early years
Intercollegiate sports began in the US in 1852 when crews from Harvard and Yale universities met in a challenge race in the sport of crew. As rowing remained the preeminent sport in the country into the late-1800s, many of the initial debates about collegiate athletic eligibility and purpose were settled through organizations like the Rowing Association of American Colleges and the Intercollegiate Rowing Association. As other sports emerged, notably football and basketball, many of these same concepts and standards were adopted. Football, in particular, began to emerge as a marquee sport, but the rules of the game itself were in constant flux and often had to be adapted for each contest.
The NCAA dates its formation to two White House conferences convened by President Theodore Roosevelt in the early 20th century in response to repeated injuries and deaths in college football which had "prompted many college and universities to discontinue the sport." Following those White House meetings and the reforms which had resulted, Chancellor Henry MacCracken of New York University organized a meeting of 13 colleges and universities to initiate changes in football playing rules; at a follow-on meeting on December 28, 1905 in New York, 62 higher-education institutions became charter members of the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States (IAAUS). The IAAUS was officially established on March 31, 1906, and took its present name, the NCAA, in 1910.
For several years, the NCAA was a discussion group and rules-making body, but in 1921, the first NCAA national championship was conducted: the National Collegiate Track and Field Championships. Gradually, more rules committees were formed and more championships were created, including a basketball championship in 1939.
In the late 1940s, there were only two colleges in the country, and , with a national TV contract, a considerable source of revenue. In 1951, the NCAA voted to prohibit any live TV broadcast of college football games during the season. No sooner had the NCAA voted to ban television than public outcry forced it to retreat. Instead, the NCAA voted to restrict the number of televised games for each team to stop the slide in gate attendance. University of Pennsylvania president Harold Stassen defied the monopoly and renewed its contract with ABC. Eventually Penn was forced to back down when the NCAA, refusing Penn's request that the U.S. Attorney General rule on the legality of the NCAA's restrictive plan, threatened to expel the Quakers from the association. Notre Dame continued televising its games through 1953, working around the ban by filming its games, then broadcasting them the next evening.
A series of crises brought the NCAA to a crossroads after World War II. The "Sanity Code" – adopted to establish guidelines for recruiting and financial aid – failed to curb abuses. Postseason football games were multiplying with little control, and member schools were increasingly concerned about how the new medium of television would affect football attendance.
The complexity of those problems and the growth in membership and championships demonstrated the need for full-time professional leadership. Walter Byers, previously a part-time executive assistant, was named executive director in 1951, and a national headquarters was established in Kansas City, Missouri in 1952.
Byers wasted no time placing his stamp on the Association. A program to control live television of football games was approved, the annual Convention delegated enforcement powers to the Association's Council, and legislation was adopted governing postseason bowl games.
As college athletics grew, the scope of the nation's athletics programs diverged, forcing the NCAA to create a structure that recognized varying levels of emphasis. In 1973, the Association's membership was divided into three legislative and competitive divisions – I, II, and III. Five years later in 1978, Division I members voted to create subdivisions I-A and I-AA (renamed the Football Bowl Subdivision and the Football Championship Subdivision in 2006) in football.
Until the 1980s, the association did not offer women's athletics. Instead, the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW), with nearly 1000 member schools, governed women's collegiate sports in the United States. The AIAW was in a vulnerable position that precipitated conflicts with the NCAA in the early 1980s. Following a one-year overlap in which both organizations staged women's championships, the AIAW discontinued operation, and most member schools continued their women's athletics programs under the governance of the NCAA. By 1982 all divisions of the NCAA offered national championship events for women's athletics. A year later in 1983, the 75th Convention approved an expansion to plan women's athletic program services and pushed for a women's championship program.
By the 1980s, had become a larger source of income for the NCAA. In September 1981, the Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma and the University of Georgia Athletic Association filed suit against the NCAA in district court in Oklahoma. The plaintiffs stated that the NCAA's football television plan constituted price fixing, output restraints, boycott, and monopolizing, all of which were illegal under the Sherman Act. The NCAA argued that its pro-competitive and non-commercial justifications for the plan – protection of live gate, maintenance of competitive balance among NCAA member institutions, and the creation of a more attractive "product" to compete with other forms of entertainment – combined to make the plan reasonable. In September 1982, the district court found in favor of the plaintiffs, ruling that the plan violated antitrust laws. It enjoined the Association from enforcing the contract. The NCAA appealed all the way to the United States Supreme Court, but lost in 1984 in the 7–2 ruling NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma. (If the television contracts the NCAA had with ABC, CBS, and ESPN had remained in effect for the 1984 season, they would have generated some $73.6 million for the Association and its members.)
In 1999, the NCAA was sued for discriminating against female athletes under Title IX for systematically giving men in graduate school more waivers than a woman to participate in college sports. In National Collegiate Athletic Association v. Smith, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the NCAA was not subject to that law, without reviewing the merits of the discrimination claim.
Over the last two decades recruiting international athletes has become a growing trend among NCAA institutions. For example, most German athletes outside of Germany are based at US universities. For many European athletes, the American universities are the only option to pursue an academic and athletic career at the same time. Many of these students come to the US with high academic expectations and aspirations.
In 2009, Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, became the NCAA's first non-US member institution.
In 2014, the NCAA set a record high of a $989 Million in net revenue. Being just shy of $1 Billion is among the highest of all large sports organizations.