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College Athletics

Intramural Athletics In U.s. Colleges And Universities

The term intramural comes from the Latin intra (within) and murus (wall). In a collegiate setting, intramural usually refers to a formally organized program of activities, games, and sports designed to meet the needs of the entire college community. Campus intramural and recreational programs normally provide an opportunity for voluntary participation and/or competition among members of the same institution, and also for occasional competition between intramural groups at other institutions. Because participation is voluntary and open to all, intramural activities allow all students to experience the positive outcomes normally reserved for varsity athletes.

The intramural motto reads, "An activity for everyone and everyone in an activity" (Hyatt, p. 10), and the main purpose is student enjoyment. Intramural programs exist simply because students enjoy the activities and want them to continue. While there is no other necessary justification for the existence of intramural programs, there are many varied benefits, which have led to the secondary goal of providing educational experiences through physical activity. Several objectives related to this goal are:

  • Physical development–personal fitness programs can help produce happier, healthier individuals.
  • Mental development–many sports provide stress relief and require and enhance quick decision-making, interpretation, and concentration.
  • Social development–being part of a team requires and fosters teamwork, cooperation, and sportsmanship.
  • Skill development–intramural activities provide an opportunity to refine specific physical skills, an opportunity that may not have been available previously.
  • Leisure-time development–these activities encourage a positive choice for filling free time, which may carry over to healthful life decisions.


There are a few early records of intramural events that eventually gave rise to formalized intramural offices and organizations, including an 1852 boat race between Harvard and Yale students, an 1857 Princeton University baseball game between freshmen and sophomores, and an 1859 baseball game between students at Williams and Amherst.

In 1913 the term intramural was first used at the University of Michigan, at which time the first formal intramural departments were formed at Michigan and Ohio State. Many large state institutions soon followed, and in 1920 the Big Ten Intercollegiate Athletic Conference began holding annual intramural director's meetings. The first book on the topic, Elmer Mitchell's Intramural Athletics, was published in 1925. Mitchell was later a main force in developing Ph.D. and Ed.D. programs for physical educators. He also initiated Research Quarterly and was the first author of the Journal of Health and Physical Education. The first building dedicated solely to intramural activities was constructed in 1928 at the University of Michigan. The creation of the federal work-study program in 1933 established jobs for students in intramural departments and allowed many institutions to further develop their intramural programs.

The year 1948 marked the beginning of the first professional organization related to college intramurals. William Wasson, from Dillard University in New Orleans, toured twenty-five black colleges, studying their intramural departments. He then produced A Comparative Study of Intramural Programs in Negro Colleges. Wasson concluded that it would be very helpful to form a national organization to serve as a reference and resource for those involved in collegiate intramural programs. In 1950 there was a meeting of eleven black-college intramural directors, who named themselves the National Intramural Association (NIA). They later invited intramural directors from other institutions to join their group and eventually changed the organization's name to the National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association (NIRSA). In 1955 the first international conference was held, and in 1971 women were invited to join NIRSA.


Within an intramural department, each activity or team needs to be a separate program and function as a whole. Programs and activities do have relationships with each other, but they are not dependent upon each other for their existence, and no activity is more important than any other. A cooperative balance between intramural activities and varsity athletics is crucial, and it is important to recognize that both programs are meeting the needs of students, though of different populations and in different activities. The only pre-requisite for intramurals is a desire to participate, which often includes a broad range of duties, such as playing, coaching, managing, supervising, and officiating. The intramural office is typically responsible for the following:

  • Organizing separate leagues for men and women.
  • Creating opportunities for unstructured recreation (pick-up games).
  • Providing structured and unstructured opportunities for coed recreation.
  • Club teams (intercollegiate competition, but not selective the way varsity programs are).
  • Special event planning.
  • Extramurals (contests with another institution's club team or intramural team).
  • Outdoor recreation.
  • Recreational opportunities for faculty, staff, and families, including programs to integrate the entire campus.
  • Cultural, creative activities.
  • Special programs over the summer.

The intramural director is typically responsible for publicizing events, as well as coordinating activities, making policies governing participation, scheduling and supervising activities, ensuring that officials are trained, arbitrating any disputes between participants, purchasing and managing equipment, and overseeing and balancing the budget.

Typical Programs

The programs and activities offered at an institution are largely based on the size and type of the college and the diversity and needs of the college community. Intramural and recreation programs at large universities are much more standardized than those at smaller, private colleges. For the basis of comparison, examples are provided of current offerings at two very different types of institutions. Table 1 lists the intramural/recreation offerings at the University of Massachusetts, a large, public, East Coast university. Table 2 shows the intramural/recreation offerings at the California Institute of Technology, a small, private, West Coast college.

Benefits Of Intramural Programs

Participation in intramurals has been found to have a positive effect on a student's self-esteem. As a student's recreation participation increases, his or her confidence also increases. College students are constantly required to cope with stress related to their


academic life, and participating in intramurals can help balance a student's life and improve the quality of life. For some students, intramural activities can be the single common bond they feel with other students, and intramurals thus becomes the basis for developing a social network, which is crucial for persistence–an important goal of most institutions. Student participants also develop a sense of accomplishment when they become more adept at physical skills.

An intramural program is perhaps the most ideal location to foster moral development education, and this focus is the responsibility of the intramural administration. The overall atmosphere of a college intramural program should be fair, just, and geared toward moral growth. Participants should be clear that the focus is participation, teamwork, sportsmanship, and a sense of belonging. Any complaints or disputes should be handled by the administration with fairness and moral considerations in mind.


A campus intramural and recreation program has a unique opportunity to bring together all of the different members of the community, including students, faculty, staff, alumni, and families, for the pursuit of a common goal. The recreation center is often open up to eighteen hours per day and attracts a more diverse population than other facilities on campus. While students tend to be measured by their grade point average and the type of degree they earn, they are far more likely to value and remember the life skills and relationships they develop in college. An intramural office that values the education and development of the whole person has endless opportunities to meet the needs of the entire college community.


CLARKE, JAMES S. 1978. Challenge and Change: A History of the Development of the National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association 1950–1976. New York: Leisure Press.

COLLINS, JOHN R.; GRAHAM, APRILL P.; KING, TERESA L.; and VALERIUS, LAURA. 2001. "The Relationship Between College Students' Self-Esteem and the Frequency and Importance of Their Participation in Recreational Activities." National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association Journal 25:38–47.

DALGARN, MELINDA K. 2001. "The Role of the Campus Recreation Center in Creating a Community." National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association Journal 25:66–72.

HYATT, RONALD W. 1977. Intramural Sports: Organization and Administration. St. Louis, MO: Mosby.

KLEINDIENST, VIOLA, and WESTON, ARTHUR. 1964. Intramural and Recreation Programs for Schools and Colleges. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

MUELLER, PAT. 1971. Intramurals: Programming and Administration. New York: Ronald Press.

ROKOSZ, FRANCIS M. 1975. Structured Intramurals. Philadelphia, Saunders.

THEODORE, PHILIP A. 1999. "Promoting Moral Growth Through Campus Recreation." National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association Journal 23:39–42.


Additional topics

Education Encyclopedia - StateUniversity.comEducation Encyclopedia: Classroom Management - Creating a Learning Environment to Association for Science Education (ASE)College Athletics - History Of Athletics In U.s. Colleges And Universities, Academic Support Systems For Athletes - THE ROLE AND SCOPE OF INTERCOLLEGIATE ATHLETICS IN U.S. COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES