The Rise of Intramural and Recreational Sports

The Beginning of Intramural and Recreational Sports Organization in Collegiate Settings

Though college sports clubs and intercollegiate team play existed as early as the mid-1800s, it wasn’t until the early 1900s that intramural sports departments began. Two Midwest universities, the University of Michigan and The Ohio State University, are credited with formal collegiate programs for intramural sports beginning in 1913. The first director of OSU’s program, football coach John Wilce, said: “Every student should at least have had the chance during his college career to have obtained the social and moral benefits of membership on some athletic team, and opportunities should be given to him to form habits of recreational play which will be of value to him after college.”

But it is Elmer Mitchell, author of Intramural Athletics (1928) and co-author of 1939’s Intramural Sports, who is commonly referred to as the “father of intramural sports.” Mitchell became the director of intramural sports at the University of Michigan in 1919 while still a graduate student at the university, and held that post for over 20 years. He also taught at the university and was involved in the physical education department until 1959.

Elmer taught a PE graduate student named William Wasson in 1946. Wasson became increasingly interested in intramural sports and went on to develop Dillard University’s intramural program. With funding from the Carnegie Foundation, he was able to tour historically black colleges and universities to research their intramural sports programs.

A Brief History of NIRSA

The results of Wasson’s study, A Comparative Study of Intramural Programs in Negro Colleges, led to an Intramural Summit at Dillard in 1950. Twenty representatives from 11 HBCUs attended and formed the first iteration of what NIRSA is today, known then as the National Intramural Association.

Over the next few decades, NIA grew to include the entire intramural community, while also changing its name to National Intramural-Recreational Association. Women were excluded from membership from 1959–1971 and were accepted again from 1975 onward. Today, the organization is known as NIRSA: Leaders in Collegiate Recreation with more than 4,500 members throughout seven regions in the U.S. and Canada.

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