College Sports - Deciphering the NCAA

As you enter your college search, many of you are probably interested in comparing the athletic programs of different schools. Many others will be learning about the rules and regulations of college sports for the first time. To get the inside story on how the National Collegiate Athletic Association functions, we spoke with Christopher Kenny, Associate Director of Athletics for St. Michael's College in Burlington, Vermont.

“It's a challenge,” began Kenny. “Even for people immersed in it like I am, the NCAA can be a very complex topic.”
The NCAA started life as the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States, founded in 1906 by the presidential order of Theodore Roosevelt. The association was originally created to curb violence at college football games, where an increasing number of players had been trampled, crippled, and even killed. After his own son was injured while playing football at Harvard, Roosevelt called together the leaders of Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Annapolis, and West Point to form an organization dedicated to enforcing safety and fair play. By 1910, the organization had taken all college athletics under its jurisdiction and had fully evolved into the NCAA that exists today.

According to Kenny, about 1,200 colleges affiliated with the NCAA. Under the auspices of the NCAA, colleges are separated by region into different athletic conferences, of which there are dozens. Athletic conferences operating in Vermont include the America East Conference (University of Vermont), the New England Small College Athletic Conference (Middlebury), the Great Northeast Athletic Conference (Norwich University), and the Northeast Ten Conference (St. Michael's College).

“They sort of run the nuts and bolts operation and also help schools that are members of the conference adhere to NCAA rules and regulations,” said Kenny. “They act as a clearing house, so to speak, of behavior and score performance.”

College athletic programs are divided into three divisions, which are largely defined by their ability to supply financial aid.  Division I colleges can grant the largest amount of financial aid to student athletes. Division II schools can also offer athletic scholarships, although not to same degree as Division I. Schools at the Division III level, the largest division, cannot offer  financial aid of any kind. The University of Vermont remains the only Division I level college in the state.

Although the primary difference between divisions is the amount of money that colleges have available for athletic scholarships, there are other differences as well. Higher division schools have the resources to provide entertainment for their fans in addition to supporting their student athletes, while Division III schools must focus entirely on the sport itself. Division II and Division III colleges also have restrictions on playing seasons and the amount of time a sport can be played outside its traditional season.

Division levels are generally assigned based on the amount of money that a college spends on their athletic program, not necessarily by the size of their student population. While they might have fewer students than their rivals, many smaller schools nonetheless belong to higher divisions thanks  to their high investment in student athletics.

“Two years ago there was a school from our conference, the Northeast Ten, that was in the national championship game in women's basketball,” noted Kenny. “So it was American International College, their enrollment's going to be about 1,400 people, and they were going up against Grand Valley State, which has an enrollment of 25,000. So it's not specifically based on enrollment. That is a factor the schools look at, but it's much more about emphasis on athletics, that philosophy.”

Divisions are changed through a formal declaration process to the NCAA, which typically takes about four or five years to process. College sports teams have the option to play against teams from other divisions, but every team is required to play certain percentage of games within their own division level. “When it comes down to championship time, after your conference playoffs are over, one of the things the championship committees look at is your performance at your division level,” said Kenny.

Ultimately, the prime difference between college athletic programs is the time and energy a student athlete will be required to contribute.

“Very basically, it comes down to the level of competition a student coming from Vermont wants to play at,” said Kenny. “Division I is the top of the ladder it's the toughest competition. It's probably the most sizable investment of time and sweat and tears. It's a primary focus for a student athlete at the Division I level to compete in their sport,” said Kenny. As for Division II, “There's a little more balance, but still a very sizable commitment to your sport. And at the Division III level, the commitment to athletics is less so, as far as the time your coach can have with you and your involvement in team activity.”

“To be an athlete is an incredible investment of personal time. You really have be a great time manager to make it all work.”