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College Quarterly
Summer 2013 - Volume 16 Number 3
Intercollegiate Athletics in Canada and the United States: Differences in Access, Quality, and Funding
By Natalie M. Geiger

Intercollegiate athletics are a unique part of North American institutions of higher education. They were originally established as part of institutions’ physical education programming for the purpose of providing young men and women with competitive opportunities to develop their athletic skills at a very high level (Association of Universities…, 1966, p. 10). In alignment with the objectives of the institution and working co-operatively with traditional academic disciplines, intercollegiate athletics, from their beginnings, have been intended to contribute to the overall education of students,

helping them to engage in experiences designed to produce the maximum development of their total personalities, improve their abilities to live harmoniously and co-operatively with others, attain competences leading to economic efficiency and independence, and enjoy the privileges and discharge the obligations of enlightened democratic citizenship (Weston, 1962, p. 268).

Over the years, however, intercollegiate athletics in North America have grown beyond solely serving educational goals, as sports and its values of competition and achievement, have become deeply embedded within the cultural fabric of Western society. College and university athletics in Canada and the United States have become developmental platforms for amateur international competition and professional sports leagues, and to varying degrees, serve as a source of institutional revenue and entertainment, as well as sources of pride, affiliation, tradition, and inspiration to many people both within and outside of college and university communities. Therefore, many Canadian and American postsecondary institutions invest significant time, energy, and money to recruit, retain, and develop the best student-athletes from around the world to represent their institutional brand in competition.

However, despite the fact that both the Canadian and American intercollegiate athletic leagues are highly competitive, there are significant differences between the two intercollegiate athletic systems, which may produce different experiences for student-athletes enrolled in each system. The differences between the two systems are related to the fundamental triad of issues which affect postsecondary education as a whole: access, quality, and funding. In the context of intercollegiate athletics and for the purposes of this paper, I will refer to access as the admission of student-athletes to institutions, quality as measures and outcomes related to student-athletes’ athletic and academic performance, as well as their personal development within intercollegiate athletics programming, and funding as the methods and resources institutions use to finance their athletic programs. This paper will discuss the differences in access, quality, and funding between the intercollegiate athletics system governed by the largest organization of American intercollegiate athletics, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), and the intercollegiate athletics system governed by the Canadian organization called Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS).


The NCAA and CIS have different policies regarding the admission of student-athletes to their institutions, policies which have sparked debate over the past thirty to forty years in North American higher education. The key debate revolves around whether student-athletes should be admitted under a different set of criteria to universities than non-athlete students, including being recruited and given financial aid or scholarships based on their athletic ability. It has been argued that to offer a student incentive to attend a particular institution related to his/her athletic performance puts the emphasis in the wrong place, (i.e., on athletic achievement, rather than on the learning and growth missions of higher education) (Houwing, 1974, p. 9). However, like any other program of a university, physical education and athletic programs strive to achieve a high level of excellence, and undoubtedly, an effective way to do this is to admit, retain, and develop the best athletes. Furthermore, many student-athletes are drawn from high schools and socioeconomic backgrounds which are different from many non-athletes admitted to postsecondary institutions (Harper & Quaye, 2009, p. 284). Therefore, athletic scholarships provide these student-athletes with an opportunity to pursue postsecondary education that they may not have had otherwise. As North American society moves from mass to universal higher education to support and grow its knowledge-based economy in an extremely competitive globalized world, methods to increase access to higher education, such as athletic scholarships, are becoming critical areas of discussion.

Currently, both the NCAA and the CIS offer athletic scholarships to prospective student-athletes, but the amount of scholarship money available for student-athletes in each of these systems differs greatly. For example, the average annual value of an NCAA Division 1 full scholarship (covering tuition and fees, room and board, and course-related books and materials) at in-state public institutions is $15 000, $25 000 at out-of-state public institutions, and $35 000 at private institutions (“Athletics Scholarships,” 2011). In contrast, CIS scholarships are limited to tuition and compulsory fees, which vary by institution. Ontario University Athletics (OUA), the largest conference in the CIS, has capped its scholarships for student-athletes at $4 000 per year (“Student Financial Awards,” 2012).

The criteria for receiving an athletic scholarship at colleges and universities in the United States and Canada are different as well. Although a student-athlete may be recruited by a CIS university coach based on his/her athletic ability, scholarships at CIS institutions are partially based on academic merit.  Specifically, student-athletes must first be academically admitted to the institution based on the same admission standards as non-athlete students (“CIS Athlete’s Guide,” 2011-2012, p. 4). Then they must have an 80% academic average from high school entering their first year of university in order to be eligible to receive an athletic scholarship covering fees in their first year (“CIS Athlete’s Guide,” 2011-2012, p. 4). Every year thereafter, student-athletes must achieve a minimum of a 65% average, or 70% for OUA student-athletes (“CIS Athlete’s Guide,” 2011-2012, p. 4).

American student-athletes, on the other hand, may receive academic scholarships from their institutions, but athletic scholarships are solely based on athletic performance with the only academic requirement being that the student meets the minimum academic standards to be admitted to the institution and achieves at least the minimum grade point averages year by year to continue to be eligible to compete. These minimum admission standards (2.5 high school GPA in 13 core courses with a 700 SAT score) and academic eligibility standards (1.8 by year 2, 1.9 by year 3, and 2.0 by year 4) are set by the NCAA, but some institutions set higher standards (“Academics – Remaining Eligible,” 2011).

Differences in the commercialization of intercollegiate athletics between the United States and Canada contribute to the disparity in scholarship amounts and the differing criteria for receiving an athletic scholarship in the NCAA and CIS. Intercollegiate athletics in the United States, especially NCAA Division 1 athletics, have become highly commercialized, with some programs, particularly in the sports of men’s football and basketball, generating millions of dollars in revenue through media coverage, television deals, advertising, and maximum attendance at their games and events (Harper & Quaye, 2009, p. 283). Much of this revenue is used by institutions and the NCAA to fund athletic scholarships (“Finances,” 2013, p. 1). In addition, with this commercialization, there is pressure for athletic programs to win conference and national championships, starting with recruiting and retaining the best athletes. Having a different set of criteria for admission to universities for scholarship student-athletes than those of non-athlete students increases the pool of talented athletes institutions are able to recruit and accept, which may further bolster their athletic program and brand.

Some NCAA institutions have been known to admit student-athletes who are under-qualified or under-prepared academically for the tradeoff of winning championships (Harper & Quaye, 2009, p. 284). The NCAA standards for athletic scholarships and academic eligibility have been raised repeatedly over the years due to scandals during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, such as transcript tampering, academic fraud, and similar academic infractions (Hollis, 2001-2002, p. 268). These scandals reflect the fact that some university athletic administrations were primarily focused on winning, rather than academically developing and graduating individuals with athletic talent (Hollis, 2001-2002, p. 268). Furthermore, such scandals have tarnished the NCAA’s reputation for developing students first and athletes second.

CIS athletics, on the other hand, generate very little television or advertising revenue, receive limited media coverage, and acquire minimal attendance at games and events compared to NCAA Division 1 athletics (Miller & Kerr, 2002, p. 349). With little revenue generated from athletics, the CIS and its participating universities have very little money to fund athletic scholarships for student-athletes. However, the CIS has never wanted to become like its neighbour to the south in terms of developing a commercialized intercollegiate athletic system tainted with academic infractions (Houwing, 1974, p. 52). Therefore, the league resisted providing scholarships to student-athletes for many years and instead, chose to focus on building up athletic programs in other ways with limited general university funds, such as improved facilities and increased funding coaches (Houwing, 1974, p. 9). In addition, the CIS has been committed to maintaining the educational integrity of intercollegiate athletics, encouraging Canadian universities to have their intercollegiate athletic programs be part of the faculty of physical education, along with intramurals and recreational sports services (Houwing, 1974, p. 8). With this organization, commercialization is minimized and athletics are framed as being fundamental to students’ educational experience. In other words, student development is emphasized over athletic development. Reflecting this commitment, Dr. A.W. Matthews, the Senior Investigator of a 1974 study of athletic programs in Canadian universities states the following:

We take the further position that the objective of the university should be to develop a quality program that serves the best interests of the student participants and not to create a situation whereby the student-athlete is used to serve the interests of the coach or of the institution (as cited in Houwing, 1974, p. 8).

The lack of athletic scholarships available in the CIS, however, has meant that over the years, Canada has lost many of its top young athletes to American institutions. For example, during the 2012-2013 academic year, approximately 3 500 Canadian athletes were enrolled in NCAA institutions competing in sports offered at CIS universities (Johnson, 2013, p. 1).  In recent years, athletic scholarships at CIS institutions have been implemented to retain athletic talent in Canada. The development of these athletes is something that Canadian society cares about because major international athletic events, such as the Olympics, unite the country in a special way and inspire people to live healthy, active lives. Ultimately, CIS and Canadian postsecondary institutions are striving to become the prominent development platform for top Canadian athletes, just as the NCAA has done so successfully for top American athletes, but without compromising its fundamental value system rooted in education and student development. The academic requirements to receive CIS athletic scholarships, along with the fact that the scholarships are limited to tuition and compulsory fees, attempt to ensure that this value system is maintained.


The quality of intercollegiate athletics programming in the United States and Canada is not easily measureable. In order to understand the full scope of quality for an intercollegiate athletic program, the goals of competitive athletics in higher education must be examined. Colleges and universities are not commercial institutions, nor were they ever designed to be (Weston, 1962, p. 268). Therefore, intercollegiate athletics cannot be justified solely because they provide entertainment to the public, nor for the profit and propaganda they can produce from athletic success to support the institution financially (Weston, 1962, p. 268). Intercollegiate athletics also exist at institutions of higher learning for the purpose of contributing to the education of students (Weston, 1962, p. 268). Based on this purpose, it would make sense to discuss the quality of the Canadian and American intercollegiate athletic systems in terms of measures and outcomes related to student-athletes’ academic performance, as well as their social engagement/involvement on campus, career development, and their overall personal development.

Academic Performance:

The academic performance of student-athletes is a concern for both American and Canadian intercollegiate athletic programs. As in both systems, one of the main barriers to student-athletes’ academic excellence is the significant time and energy demand of university athletic endeavours. American intercollegiate teams train and compete for 20 hours per week in season and 8 hours out of season, limits strictly regulated by the NCAA (“NCAA Division 1 Manual,” 2012-2013, p. 241). Although the Canadian Interuniversity Sport league (CIS) does not have these regulations, Miller & Kerr (2002) found that student-athletes in Canada typically spend the same amount of time in training and competition as NCAA student-athletes.

However, Comeaux & Harrison (2011) found that NCAA Division 1 student-athletes often spend extra time, up to an additional 20 hours per week or more, on activities related to their sport, including rehabilitation from injuries and treatment of nagging injuries, strength training, film analysis, nutrition counselling, sports psychology, booster club or alumni events, etc., in addition to practicing and competing (Comeaux & Harrison, 2011, p. 236). Being an intercollegiate student-athlete at some NCAA institutions is, therefore, comparable to having a full-time job, and there are often significant pressures and expectations set by the coaching staff and the institution’s athletic administration for student-athletes to perform well and win games/competitions. In addition to general fatigue from training and competition, such pressures can take a toll on student-athletes both mentally and physically, which can negatively impact their academic performance. CIS athletes, on the other hand, may not have as many team events to attend per week outside of regularly scheduled training and competition, since their athletic team and league is less commercialized.

Other differing factors among NCAA and CIS institutions which may influence the academic performance of student-athletes are the athletic subculture and its academic expectations for student-athletes, as well as other students’ and faculty’s expectations of student-athletes’ academic performance. For example, research has shown that student-athletes’ low academic performance at some NCAA institutions is partly caused by an athletic subculture of low academic expectations. For example, Adler & Adler (1987) found that the subculture and social environment among NCAA Division 1 men’s basketball players was anti-intellectual, with low expectations for academic success and little conversation about academic, cultural, or intellectual pursuits. The majority of them distanced themselves from the academic role because failure was difficult to accept, so they felt it was better to not try at all and diminish this role’s importance to their self-identity. In fact, players who put forth “too much effort” into academic endeavours were often ridiculed (p. 449).

In addition to an anti-intellectual student-athlete subculture, negative “dumb jock” stereotypes held by faculty and the rest of the student body about student-athletes may also contribute to the lowering of academic expectations for student-athletes at particular NCAA institutions. For example, the basketball players in Adler & Adler’s (1987) study reported being labelled by professors and non-athlete students as jocks in the classroom, and were treated differently, (i.e., given either greater tolerance (extra tutoring sessions, relaxed deadlines, relaxed academic standards, etc.) or less tolerance (a reaction prompted by a perception that the basketball players felt entitled to special treatment due to their athletic status)) (p. 448). Consistent with this finding, other studies have shown that some faculty possess more negative attitudes toward NCAA Division 1 and Division 2 student-athletes than non-athlete members of the student population (Comeaux, 2011, p. 521). As well, Engstrom & Sedlacek (1991) discovered in their study of prejudice toward American university student-athletes, that “students seem to be more suspicious and less trusting of student-athletes obtaining an A in class”, “students are less disturbed or concerned when student-athletes leave school”, and that “participants are worried and disturbed about having a student-athlete assigned to them as a lab partner” (p. 191). This issue of negative attitudes toward student-athletes extends to race, as a Chronicle of Higher Education article by Perlmutter (2003) reported that “Black athletes at a Division 1 school felt they were being marginalized and not taken seriously by White professors in the classroom and on campus” (as cited in Comeaux, 2011, p. 521-522).

Beliefs from faculty and non-athlete students that student-athletes do not have the intellectual ability or work ethic to perform well in the classroom often infiltrate student-athletes’ self-concepts and become a reality (Engstrom & Sedlacek, 1991, p. 191). After all, research by Hamilton & Trolier (1986), suggests that “stereotypes can create self-fulfilling prophesy effects with members of this stereotyped group” (as cited by Engstrom & Sedlacek, 1991, p. 191). Moreover, such differential treatment based on their athletic status from people outside of student-athletes’ athletic realm reinforces their “athlete” role and identity while diminishing their academic role.

Similar research conducted by Miller & Kerr (2002) with basketball, volleyball, track and field, and swimming student-athletes at a major research university in Canada, on the other hand, found that the athletic subculture was a pro-intellectual environment where academic goals and accomplishments were celebrated (p. 361). In addition, on these teams, senior student-athletes assumed a mentoring role toward the social and academic transition of younger teammates (p. 360). This supportive academic environment among Canadian intercollegiate athletic teams has had positive effects on Canadian student-athletes’ academic growth and achievement, as reflected by Curtis and McTeer’s (1990) finding of higher academic achievement among Canadian student-athletes in comparison to their non-athlete peers (as cited in Miller & Kerr, 2002). However, more recent findings suggest that the academic achievement of Canadian student-athletes may have leveled off and may be starting to decline as a result of institutions placing greater importance on athletic performance and the increasing costs of higher education, requiring students to work more throughout the school year (McTeer & Curtis, 1999) (as cited in Miller & Kerr, p. 358). In addition, the Canadian student-athletes studied by Miller & Kerr (2002) reported achieving low grades during their first year of university, grades that were estimated to be approximately 20% lower than their high school grades (p. 356). After that, their grades gradually improved, as they continued adjusting to the academic and athletic system and employed different tactics to remain committed to both, such as changing majors, dropping courses, and decreasing their social activities. By their fourth and fifth years, they were more committed to academics than their sport.

In order to improve student-athletes’ academic performance, thereby improving the overall quality of their intercollegiate athletics programs, both NCAA and CIS institutions should focus on providing services which allow student-athletes to develop good study habits and learn how to effectively balance their academic and athletic roles. Many CIS institutions do not offer such support services designed specifically for student-athletes (Miller & Kerr, 2002, p. 349), but some have recently developed small programs, such as the mentoring and tutoring programs at McMaster University (“Academic Support,” 2013, p. 1) and the University of Ottawa (“Recruit/Student-Athlete Resources,” 2013, p. 2). NCAA athletic departments, on the other hand, offer such services on a larger scale called Student-Athlete Support Service Programs (SASSPs). These programs include orientation and workshops for course planning and registration, study hall, tutoring and peer mentorship programs, and regular individual progress meetings with a student-athlete academic advisor (Hollis, 2001-2002). Most of these services are effective in assisting first-year student-athletes adjust to the university academic environment and helping at-risk student-athletes improve their grades and stay on track to graduate (Hollis, 2001-2002).

Despite having these positive influences on student-athletes’ academic transition and success, SASSPs have also had a negative impact on student-athletes’ academic growth at some institutions. For example, some SASSPs have been criticized for focusing on the maintenance of student-athletes’ competitive eligibility, rather than the academic development and graduation of student-athletes and preparing them for life beyond sport (Hollis, 2001-2002). In extreme cases, institutions have been severely punished, receiving four- and five-year probations for their NCAA teams, as a result of SASSP staff assisting student-athletes in obtaining academic credit or grade changes as well as helping them commit academic infractions such as submitting fraudulent papers and fraudulent medical information necessary to receive extensions on assignments and exams (Hollis, 2001-2002, p. 269). Whether or not infractions are committed, however, SASSPs primarily focused on maintaining student-athlete eligibility from year-to-year, rather than on helping student-athletes improve their academic abilities and develop academic interests leading toward graduation and beyond, contribute to an athletic subculture of low academic expectations at many NCAA Division 1 institutions (Hollis, 2001-2002, p. 270).

Overall, the academic performance of student-athletes is negatively affected by time constraints resulting from demanding athletic endeavours, the constant reinforcement of the athlete role by others at the university within and outside of the athletic department and in the classroom, and the overall greater emphasis by the institution and athletic program of athletic performance over academic performance. Student-athletes’ academic performance can be positively influenced by student-athlete subcultures and team environments where academic success is rewarded and celebrated like athletic success, as well as by advisors, tutors, and mentors who help stimulate the academic growth and interests of the student-athlete. Despite their differences, improvements could be made at both NCAA and CIS institutions in helping student-athletes achieve academic excellence.

Social Engagement/Involvement, Career Development, and Personal Development:

In addition to academic performance, social engagement/involvement, career development, and overall personal development are crucial parts of student-athletes’ educational process at both NCAA and CIS institutions, and student-athletes in both countries may struggle with these aspects of the learning process. Their challenges with integrating into the social realm of campus life result from being isolated from other students and faculty on campus. This is especially true for NCAA student-athletes, as not only do their demanding athletic obligations prevent them from being involved in their campus’s social and intellectual community, but also, at some institutions, they are placed in athlete-only residences on a different area of campus from other student residences (Adler & Adler, 1987; Miller & Kerr, 2002). Reflecting such a narrow social circle isolated from the rest of the university community, Adler and Adler (1987) found that the participants in their study, men’s basketball players from a major Division 1 program, socialized primarily with other student-athletes and felt more comfortable and preferred living, dining, and taking classes with other student-athletes.

Although CIS student-athletes do not live in athlete-only residences during their first year of university, Miller & Kerr (2002) found that they tend to move into houses or apartments off-campus with primarily members of their team or other student-athletes after their first year (p. 360). In addition, Lally & Kerr (2005) found that the Canadian student-athletes they interviewed defined themselves during their first three years of university by their involvement in athletics and their relationships with teammates and coaches (p. 280). Specifically, during this earlier part of their university experience, they socialized primarily with teammates and other student-athletes both in and outside of class. In addition, they made overt efforts to be identified as athletes by everyone they encountered, such as wearing varsity athletic clothing (Lally & Kerr, 2005, p. 280).

This social disengagement of student-athletes from their non-athlete peers at both NCAA and CIS institutions is concerning not only because it can limit their growth and development as students, but it can also inhibit their social development, including vital communication and relationship-building skills necessary for success after college. Nishimoto (1997, p. 628) summarizes such development challenges with the following statement:

Athletes are trapped in a self-perpetuating system set in motion early in their lives. They have a special commodity that separates them from the rest of the [college] population – athletic talent. Unfortunately, while they benefit from the special attention, they are also blocked from “normal” development by being segregated on college campuses (as cited in Harper & Quaye, 2009, p. 285).

As Nishimoto asserts, student-athletes are absorbed in a world of achieving high athletic standards as soon as they begin competing in their sport at a high level, which for some, is at an early age. They have learned that athletic excellence is highly valued in North American society, and they have been positively reinforced by others often primarily based on their athletic performance. This type of support, which is further perpetuated throughout college by demanding coaches, athletic administrators, and even parents and teammates, is problematic, as it creates a fragile ego identity where student-athletes’ entire sense of self-worth is dependent on how they perform athletically (Harper & Quaye, 2009, p. 288). Such an identity may prevent them from relating to other non-athlete peers, being open to learning new skills and perspectives, and developing healthy relationships not based on their athletic success.

Furthermore, in addition to structured schedules and time constraints, this narrow identity may prevent student-athletes from seeking out career information and resources, such as the university career centre, as well as experimenting with other roles, interests, and opportunities outside of athletics. Many American studies have shown that NCAA student-athletes prepare little for a career outside of athletics and have lower levels of career development and career maturity than non-athletes (Blann, 1985; Kennedy & Dimick, 1987; Murphy, Petitpas, & Brewer, 1996; Smallman & Sowa, 1996; Sowa & Gressard, 1983; Martens & Cox, 2000), and Murphy et al. (1996) found that a strong athletic identity (a high score on the Athletic Identity Measurement Scale) was inversely related to experiencing difficulty making mature career-related decisions (a low score on the Career Maturity Inventory) (as cited in Lally & Kerr, 2005, p. 276). Furthermore, Smallman and Sowa (1996) found that male student-athletes in revenue-producing NCAA sports scored in the bottom 25th percentile on the Career Development Inventory (CDI), a standardized survey that measures career maturity and development (as cited in Harper & Quaye, 2009, p. 288).

In the Canadian setting, less research has been conducted exploring the career development of student-athletes. Lally & Kerr (2005) found that the participants in their study, CIS student-athletes in track and field, swimming, volleyball, and basketball, had high athletic aspirations beyond university sport in their early university years, such as pursuing amateur or professional athletic careers. However, by their senior years, all but one participant had let go of their athletic aspirations beyond the university level, realizing that amateur and professional sport careers were unlikely, and had begun to consider other career options (p. 280). Interestingly, the responses of the student-athletes’ reflected that sport had an indirect impact on all of their developing career plans, influencing them to pursue careers either related or unrelated to sport and physical activity (p. 280).

Overall, a lack of social engagement and integration into campus life, as well as a strong athletic identity and ego identity dependent on athletic success, may significantly hinder the career development and overall personal development of student-athletes in both the NCAA and the CIS. Improvements could be made in both systems towards promoting greater social engagement and integration of student-athletes with the overall campus community, as well as in promoting career development and personal development beyond the athletic role among student-athletes. Many NCAA institutions and more recently, CIS institutions, offer student-athlete counselling and advising services as part of their Student Athlete Support Services programs, which can help student-athletes balance their “student” and “athlete” roles and maintain a healthy identity. Most CIS institutions which do not offer such services specifically catered to student-athletes have general counselling and tutoring services open to all students. Athletic departments at these institutions should encourage their student-athletes to seek general support services if they are struggling. Both CIS and NCAA athletic departments should also encourage student-athletes to utilize their institutions’ career centres to help student-athletes explore career opportunities beyond athletics. In addition, both CIS and NCAA institutions could hire counsellors at their Career Centre devoted more specifically to helping student-athletes explore career options. These people would understand student-athletes and their challenges of balancing academics, athletics, social life, and career pursuits. Such career counsellors specifically trained to help student-athletes could be integrated with Academic Services for Student Athletes, including student-athletes’ academic advisors, in addition to the larger Career Centre.

Ultimately, the ideal intercollegiate athletic program proficient in maximizing the overall personal development of the student-athlete would have the philosophy of CIS institutions’ athletic programs of having the program educate the student-athlete, rather than having the student-athlete serve the program. Yet, it would have the valuable services of NCAA institutions to support student-athletes in their academic, athletic, and personal development journey. This type of program would have great potential to develop student-athletes into well-rounded, educated leaders.


Funding is a recurring issue in North American higher education because most universities and colleges, especially in Canada, are public services, rather than for-profit enterprises. Even though intercollegiate athletic departments have the potential to earn a profit at some NCAA institutions which have certain highly commercialized sports teams, such as men’s football and basketball, funding still remains a challenge. The construction and maintenance of athletic facilities, team equipment, the salaries of coaches and medical personnel, support services for student-athletes, and athletic scholarships are all expenses that cumulatively make a quality athletic program very expensive to fund.

The funding structures of CIS and NCAA institutions, as well as the funding structures of the overall CIS and NCAA organizations, are quite different. As previously discussed, the NCAA is much more commercialized than the CIS, with greater levels of advertising, publicity, and media coverage to the public. Therefore, there is high revenue potential for some athletic programs, especially in the popular spectator sports of men’s football and basketball. However, despite this commercialization and the potential to earn revenue, not all NCAA athletic programs are profitable enterprises on their own. In fact, Matheson, O’Connor, & Herberger (2012) found that the majority of intercollegiate athletic departments at public American universities relied heavily on direct and indirect subsidies from the student body (student fees which were a certain percentage of student tuition), the institution itself, and state governments in order to balance their budgets (p. 43). Without this funding, less than one-third of athletic departments whose teams were in the highest tier of Division 1 football, the Bowl Championship Series (BCS), and none of the non-BCS departments, were profitable, likely due to the fact that these departments had many other costly non-revenue producing teams, such as those in women’s sports (Matheson, O’Connor, & Herberger, 2012, p. 43). A regulation called Title 1X requires that women’s intercollegiate sports receive funding equal to that of men’s intercollegiate sports, even though most of them do not generate revenue (“Sporting Chance…,” 2013, p. 1). The study also found that athletic departments additionally relied heavily on donations from alumni and fans to balance their books (Matheson, O’Connor, & Herberger, 2012, p. 38). These donations could be substitutes for donations to university academic programs, which overall, could have a negative impact on the institution as a whole (Matheson, O’Connor, & Herberger, 2012, p. 38). As well, Matheson, O’Connor, and Herberger’s (2012) found that men’s football and basketball programs were highly profitable at most BCS schools, but below this top tier, fewer than 10% of football programs and 15% of men’s basketball programs were profitable (p. 43). Even by excluding student-athlete scholarship expenditures from financial statements, Matheson, O’Connor, and Herberger (2012) still found that the athletic departments at the majority of non-BCS schools operate in the red (p. 43).

The overall NCAA organization is a non-profit organization funded mostly by revenue from a 14-year, $10.8 billion agreement with Turner Broadcasting and CBS Sports for rights to the Division 1 Men’s Basketball Championship (“Finances,” 2013, p. 1). Sixty percent of this revenue is distributed to Division 1 conferences, which give most of that money to their member institutions to support their athletic programs (“Finances,” 2013, p. 1). In addition, the NCAA uses the revenue to fund 89 national championships in 23 sports, along with coverage of travel expenses for all participants in these championships (“Finances,” 2013, p. 1). The NCAA was expected to generate approximately $797 million in revenue for the 2012-13 year, $712 million (90 percent) of which was expected to come from media rights payments (“Finances,” 2013, p. 1).

The policies for financing CIS intercollegiate athletic programs are different at every Canadian postsecondary institution (Association of Universities…, 1966, p. 12). Some institutions rely on student athletic fees, while others receive a budget allocation from the university’s general funds (Association of Universities…, 1966, p. 12). Revenue from university athletic events and gate receipts make up a very small percentage of the athletic department’s overall funding sources. Furthermore, at some universities, the intercollegiate athletic program is part of the larger academic department of physical education, and therefore, the program receives a percentage of the university’s funds allocated to the department of physical education (Association of Universities…, 1966, p. 11). Overall, budget allocation from university general funds is the most common policy because it “secures and stabilizes the total athletic program of the university” (Association of Universities…, 1966, p. 12).

Like the NCAA, the CIS is a non-profit organization, but it is funded by the Government of Canada through its Sport Support program and generates very little revenue from media rights. The CIS uses this government funding to deliver all 16 of its national championships for the year, and to cover travel costs for the student-athletes, coaches, event management personnel, and officials participating in these championships (“Harper Government…,” 2012, p. 1). This amount of funding utilized is significantly less than the amount of revenue the NCAA earns from its large broadcasting deals and other sources. For example, the Government of Canada contributed approximately $804 000 to CIS for the 2012-2013 year (“Harper Government…,” 2012, p. 1).

Overall, funding is an important issue in North American higher education and intercollegiate athletics. Quality intercollegiate athletic programs are expensive to fund, and postsecondary institutions in Canada and the United States struggle to fund these programs independently. The financial support of government, alumni, and students who attend the institutions is needed to balance the budgets of university athletic departments. The NCAA and its top-tier Division 1 institutions have the advantage over CIS institutions of earning revenue through media rights to help fund their programs. However, even with this revenue, many Division 1 programs, including many with BCS football teams, are not profitable. Funding intercollegiate athletic programs which add value to postsecondary institutions will continue to be a challenge for both the NCAA and the CIS and their member institutions.

Re-thinking the Criteria for Success in North American Intercollegiate Athletics:

Issues with access, quality, and funding continuously affect North American higher education and systems within it, including intercollegiate athletics in Canada and the United States. The Canadian and American intercollegiate athletics organizations, CIS and the NCAA, govern two different intercollegiate athletics systems, which are characterized by different policies and issues related to the access of student-athletes to intercollegiate athletic programs, the quality of intercollegiate athletic programming in terms of the student-athlete experience, and the funding of intercollegiate athletic programs.

A great deal of money is spent to ensure emphasis on athletic achievement in American intercollegiate athletics. Large athletic scholarships permitted by the NCAA, which are awarded to student-athletes based primarily on their athletic rather than academic ability, ensure that American postsecondary institutions attract the world’s best young athletes. These scholarships provide valuable opportunities for student-athletes from low socioeconomic backgrounds to earn a university degree. They also help provide a platform for the world’s best young athletes to train for international amateur or professional competition. Large athletic scholarships and recruitment of top talent also means that American university athletics procure media coverage and prestige similar to professional sporting leagues. Significantly, U.S. college football produces more revenue from its national television deals than the National Basketball Association (NBA), Major League Baseball (MLB), or the National Hockey League (NHL) (“Sports scholarships…,” 2013, p. 2).

However, operating such high-profile university athletic programs has significant costs financially and ethically. Many NCAA Division 1 athletic programs, contrary to popular belief, are not profitable. In addition, a situation may be created where the academic and overall reputation of a university is dependent on athletic success, rather than on its research contributions, quality of faculty, and overall student experience. This kind of pressure and emphasis on athletics may cause the athletic program to consume university funds which could have been used instead for much-needed academic and overall campus developments.  In addition, it could create temptations for institutions to break rules and cover up scandals, such as the many academic infractions and recruiting violations which have occurred among NCAA student-athletes and athletic administrators over the past forty years and the most recent sexual molestation case involving Penn State football coach, Jerry Sandusky (“Sports scholarships…,” 2013, p. 2).  Furthermore, the commercialization of athletics with a strong emphasis on athletic achievement among NCAA Division 1 institutions may cause American student-athletes to invest primarily in their athletic role and less in their student role on campus. As a result, their academic performance and overall personal development may suffer.

The Canadian intercollegiate athletic programs and their governing body, CIS, are much smaller and are built upon a different value system than that of the NCAA and American intercollegiate athletic programs, a value system reflective of the following statement by the Standing Committee on Physical Education and Athletics for the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (1966): “The welfare of the individual student should be the main concern, and the program should not be evaluated in terms of gate receipts, public and alumni opinion or support (p. 12)”. With little funding from the government and other sources, as well as a desire to differentiate its system from its neighbours to the south, the CIS and its member universities have attempted to emphasize academic and student development over athletic commercialization. Consequently, less athletic scholarship money is available for student-athletes to attend and compete for Canadian universities, and therefore, many of Canada’s best student-athletes attend and compete for American universities on full athletic scholarships. As a result, the CIS is arguably a less competitive athletic league than the NCAA. However, CIS athletics are still highly competitive and many of the league’s student-athletes experience challenging academic and athletic role conflicts and an overly strong athletic identity similar to NCAA student-athletes. These challenges in conjunction with a lack of student-athlete support services have the potential to take away from Canadian student-athletes’ academic performance and personal development. Overall, less financial and service support for student-athletes in the CIS may diminish the quality of Canadian university sports and the development of amateur international and professional athletic talent here in Canada. This may result in the development of fewer athletes who have the potential to be role models for the next generation.

Tradeoffs exist in both the American and Canadian intercollegiate athletic systems in terms of access, quality, and funding. Moving forward, it may be time for each system to re-examine the purpose of athletics at institutions of higher education. Developing inspiring levels of athletic talent is certainly valued in North American society. American and Canadian universities and colleges seem to be equipped to continue with this endeavour. However, there needs to be recognition that student athletic pursuits are a part of an overall educational experience, and continued investments are required to ensure a balance is achieved for the student and the institution.


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Natalie Geiger is a member of the University of Toronto track and field team and a former student-athlete of the University of Notre Dame. She is currently also an M.Ed. student at OISE/University of Toronto. She can be reached at