Why Does The NCAA Exist?

One of the most powerful organizations in American sports is only consistent in its inaction.

Every week in her Good Form column, Natalie Weiner explores the ways in which the sports world’s structural inequalities and injustices illuminate those outside it — and the ways in which they’re inextricably connected. You can read previous columns here.

Content warning for a mention of sexual assault.

The NCAA was founded to protect student-athletes, if you can believe it. By 1906, enough football players were suffering serious and sometimes fatal injuries — including President Roosevelt’s son, who was hurt while playing for Harvard — to warrant broadscale discussion about how to make the game safer. The result of those conversations was a national governing body, the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States, responsible for creating a uniform set of rules that would help keep players safe(r). 

Over a century later, that organization only enforces regulations that have to do with keeping athletes from being compensated for their labor. Even the most superficial sports fan is aware of this deeply cynical reality, but that doesn’t make the exploitation that the NCAA has decided over and over isn’t within its jurisdiction any less galling. 

Any list of examples is inevitably incomplete, but it’s particularly hard to forget Larry Nassar’s case. Nassar sexually assaulted over 300 women while employed by Michigan State University Athletics, and overwhelming evidence showed that Michigan State administrators repeatedly mishandled allegations of those assaults. Nowhere, though, did Michigan State violate NCAA rules, as the NCAA reported after investigating the school. Athletes were systematically abused and exploited by school employees — and somehow, the NCAA was successfully able to say that that wasn’t its problem. 

It’s the same story over and over, whether you’re looking at the death of Jordan McNair and the ensuing battle to make football safer — the NCAA declined to investigate that case, letting state and university authorities take the lead — or, more recently, the non-results of a years-long NCAA investigation into Baylor Athletics and their lack of appropriate response to the numerous Baylor football players accused of rape in 2015. 

Jessica Luther, whose reporting was instrumental in making Baylor’s toxic culture public, wrote an op-ed for the LA Times about the investigation, and its conclusion that Baylor hadn’t violated any NCAA rules by ignoring sexual assault within its athletic department. She elaborates on how with various exploratory committees and reports, the NCAA has “had the opportunity to do something on the policy level and chosen not to” when it comes to sexual violence within athletic departments. She eventually comes to the same conclusion as this column: What is the point of this organization, if they have no recourse when athletes are systematically exploited and abused?

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The NCAA is staring down yet another opportunity to show their commitment to “keeping college athletes safe,” as they put it in their mission statement, with the national battle for trans athletes’ rights. Earlier this year, they released a statement insinuating that they might consider moving championships from states that have banned trans girls and women from participating in sports. This month, they issued another mealy-mouthed treatise on the issue, stating that “the NCAA intends to conduct its championships as they were awarded but will require all hosts to reaffirm their commitment to ensure a nondiscriminatory and safe environment for all college athletes per their host agreement,” and, “Any host who cannot commit to the nondiscrimination policy should contact the NCAA immediately.”

How exactly a city in a state like Florida — which was widely seen as the target of this recent statement, as it passed a law requiring women and girls to play sports on teams “according to their biological sex” in June — could “ensure a nondiscriminatory and safe environment for all college athletes,” no one really knows. What’s obvious is that once again, they’re refusing to draw a hard line when it comes to athlete safety.

Florida, as Republican state representative Chris Latvala noted to theTampa Bay Times, hosted an NCAA women’s golf regional in May — after the state’s anti-trans bill had passed in the House. Understandably, Latvala believes the NCAA is “bluffing,” as do many LGBTQ activists, who remain skeptical whether the NCAA will actually move any championships to keep trans athletes safe. 

If the NCAA can’t make rules about sexual abuse and assault, or act to ensure the rights and safety of all of its athletes — or to try to prevent something as seemingly straightforward as heatstroke — what can it do? That answer, I think, requires the NCAA to rewrite its mission. It is a trade organization, designed to protect the business interests of its member schools.

Athletes, clearly, are on their own. 

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