In 1951 Byers was a 29-year-old former Big Ten assistant sports-information director who had never headed anything. That year, Byers was appointed the first executive director of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, a job that did not have a description.
He served from 1951 to 1988. He urged the creation of the United States Basketball Writers Association in 1956. Byers helped expand the NCAA men's basketball tournament in from 8 to 16 teams. Byers negotiated TV contracts that preempted individual colleges' rights on the way to building a billion-dollar business, leading to a 1984 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that freed the colleges to negotiate on their own.
In 1970 the NCAA -- in a decision in which Byers was involved -- banned Yale from participating in all NCAA sports for two years. The decision was made in reaction to Yale -- against the wishes of Byers and the NCAA -- playing its Jewish center Jack Langer in college games after Langer had played for Team United States at the 1969 Maccabiah Games in Israel with the approval of Yale President Kingman Brewster. The decision impacted 300 Yale students, every Yale student on its sports teams, over the next two years.
Byers famously disliked University of Nevada-Las Vegas basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian, with whom he was very much at odds, and said "Tark’s black players play a fast city-lot basketball without much style. Grab ball and run like hell, not lots of passing to set up the shots.” He described U.N.L.V.’s style as “ghetto run-and-shoot basketball” with little concern for defense.
The New York Times said that Byers was sometimes known as "That power-mad Walter Byers," and described him as "secretive, despotic, stubborn and ruthless." WFAN talk show host Mike Francesa referred to him as an "Oz-like" figure who ran the NCAA with ultimate control. The Harvard Crimson described him as "power-mad." Byers was also described as a "petty tyrant." The Chicago Sun-Times described his "reign" as "near-dictatorial," and The Washington Post likewise described him as a dictator.
In his book Unsportsmanlike Conduct: Exploiting College Athletes Byers turned against the NCAA. He said it developed the term "student-athlete" in order to insulate the colleges from having to provide long-term disability payments to players injured while playing their sport (and making money for their university and the NCAA). Byers said that Congress should enact a "comprehensive College Athletes' Bill of Rights." He said that "the federal government should require deregulation of a monopoly business operated by not-for-profit institutions contracting together to achieve maximum financial returns... Collegiate amateurism is... an economic camouflage for monopoly practice. . . , [one which] 'operat[es] an air-tight racket of supplying cheap athletic labor.'"
- Walter Byers, Ex-N.C.A.A. Leader Who Rued Corruption, Dies at 93. The New York Times (May 27, 2015). Retrieved on 2018-01-11.
- "Walter Byers, first NCAA director, dies". The Oklahoman.
- Thomasson, Dan (June 4, 2015). "NCAA's first director built it into a hypocritical, self-serving monster". Las Vegas Sun Newspaper.
- Weber, Bruce (May 28, 2015). "Walter Byers, Ex-N.C.A.A. Leader Who Rued Corruption, Dies at 93". NYTimes.com.
- "The tainted legacy of NCAA president Walter Byers". Chicago Sun-Times. May 30, 2015.
- McCallum, Jack. "IN THE KINGDOM OF THE SOLITARY MAN". Sports Illustrated.
- Grimsley, Will (December 24, 1986). "Byers Speaks Seldom but Carries a Big Stick". Los Angeles Times.
- "U.S. Basketball Writers Association". www.sportswriters.net.
- "Are NCAA Athletes being exploited? timeline". Timetoast timelines. March 1, 1906.
- Taylor Branch. "The NCAA: A High House of Hypocrisy". The Atlantic. (September 26, 2011). Retrieved on 2018-01-11.
- "AAU News," Volumes 43–46, p. 7, Amateur Athletic Union of the United States, 1972.
- "Yale Junior Caught In NCAA Feud, After Playing In Maccabiah Games," Rhode Island Herald. February 6, 1970, p. 16.
- "Cross Campus". Yale Daily News. January 15, 2009.
- President's Commission on Olympic Sports (1977). The Final Report of the President's Commission on Olympic Sports, U.S. Government Printing Office.
- “Rationale for the Student-Athletes Bill of Rights”, June 25, 2002.
- "YALE STORM CENTER QUITS BASKETBALL". The New York Times. October 9, 1970.
- Gordon S. White Jr. (January 16, 1970). "RULING TO EXTEND TO ALL ELI SPORTS; Penalty Stems From Yale's Unwavering Stand to Use an Ineligible Player". The New York Times.
- Nocera, Joe (December 25, 2015). "Jerry Tarkanian and Walter Byers: Adversaries Who Left Mark on N.C.A.A." The New York Times.
- Lipsyte, Robert (January 24, 1970). "The Plot". The New York Times.
- Bennett H. Beach and John L. Powers (January 17, 1970). "Soaking up the Press". The Harvard Crimson.
- AAU News. AAU Publications. 1972.
- "19TH HOLE: THE READERS TAKE OVER". Sports Illustrated. April 20, 1970.
- "Remarks of AAU President John B. Kelly, Jr.", November 1, 1972.
- Sally Jenkins. "NCAA lost its teeth in court in 1984, and no one’s been in charge since", The Washington Post.
- Brian Goff (April 26, 2020). "NCAA World Evolving But Toward What?". Sports Economist.
- Byers, Walter (1995). Unsportsmanlike Conduct: Exploiting College Athletes. USA: The University of Michigan Press.