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The "Iron Cage" of Division I Athletics and Football as Status Imperatives: Constraint and Change Among American Universities


Throughout the history of American higher education sports have been closely identified with universities and campus life. Intercollegiate athletics occupies a peculiar space in the university; it is an institution within the universe of higher education. While extremely popular among many, there are charges that emphasis on college sports' results in mission drift in the university through its inherent commercialization and professionalism, emphasis on entertainment for the masses rather than educational opportunities for students, persistently increasing costs, and the exploitation of athletes. Despite these challenges, some schools choose to amplify their commitment to athletics through upward movement in competitive level.

This project studies the phenomenon of movement in the NCAA divisional hierarchy by American universities and characteristics of institutions that chose to move. Incorporating elements of institutional and neo-institutional theory, this dissertation analyzed whether upward movement within the NCAA hierarchy is common despite the challenges associated with it and also what characteristics distinguish institutions that move from those that do not. Using data supplied by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the Integrated Post-Secondary Education Database (IPEDS), this work identified schools that moved upward in the NCAA divisional structure and analyzed the nature of these movements across divisions to provide a clear picture of this phenomenon over twenty seven years. Findings show that the population is mostly stable; movement is not common, and that upward movement is far more frequent than downward. Characteristics shown to influence a school to move include density of institutions with in its geographic district, the number of male students enrolled, and whether or not the school fielded an independent men's sports team at the Division I level.. The data further indicate that two dominant models exist related to universities' use of athletic programs: schools either "go Division I" or add football. While the concept of institutional isomorphism (DiMaggio and Powell, 1991) provides a primary lens for analysis, this study does not represent a direct application of institutional or neo-institutional theory but is grounded in institutional and neo-institutional theories of organizational change as modified by consideration of institutional and environmental characteristics.

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