One of the great pleasures in working with nonprofit clients is getting up every day and knowing that you are helping them do good on behalf of their constituencies. They advocate on behalf of people living with autism, cancers, ALS, and cystic fibrosis. Some support people dealing with the hardships surrounding immigration, homelessness, depression, or drug addiction.
Helping these organizations raise money makes a person sensitive to other groups that take advantage of their nonprofit status for purely financial gain. There is one group that comes to my attention every year as being particularly egregious. They are involved in an annual rite of spring that occurs near the Easter holiday. Millions of Americans come together to worship the spectacle that they stage.
No, I’m not talking about a religious organization, many of whom do important charitable work on behalf of the needy. I’m talking about the National Committee for Amateur Athletics, the NCAA, which puts on its annual national sports pilgrimage commonly known as March Madness.
Full disclosure: I am a former Division I athlete who played basketball at the University of Virginia. You may have heard that this year UVA achieved the dubious distinction of being the first number one seed to lose to a number sixteen seed in the NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament. I played in Virginia’s first-ever NCAA basketball tournament game in 1976, a 69-60 loss to DePaul University. Back then, the NCAA basketball tournament invited only 32 teams. Since then the NCAA has doubled the field to 64 teams and has increased its profits from the tournament exponentially.
The tournament was formed in 1939 when just eight teams were invited to compete. The phrase “March Madness” was co-opted in 1982 from the Illinois state high school basketball tournament, which had used the phrase since 1939.
Today the NCAA more closely resembles an enormous marketing machine for high-end workout gear. But it wasn’t always this way. Its first executive director was a former sportswriter named Walter Byers, who founded the organization as a way to protect amateur athletics from both the creeping influence of capitalism and the corrupting forces of gambling. I can recall early-season team meetings at Virginia when we were warned by FBI agents how to identify a come-on by professional gamblers. Today, the NCAA states that it helps more than 480,000 student-athletes “succeed on the playing field, in the classroom, and throughout life.” The NCAA’s original charter was to keep amateur athletics free from corruption.
That was then, and this is now. The 2016 book, Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA, describes how now it is the NCAA itself from which the players need protection. The combination of a free workforce (the athletes), a dedicated fan base (the alumni) and ever-expanding marketing channels (television) created an explosion of profits. Only recently, when the amounts of money involved in major college athletics (read, football and basketball) became too massive to ignore, did the situation attract any critical attention.
As an example of the money involved, in 2014 ESPN paid the NCAA $7.3 billion for a twelve-year contract to broadcast the college football playoffs. Note, this contract was only for the playoffs; it doesn’t include regular season games. Then, in 2016 the NCAA announced a new agreement with CBS Sports and Turner Broadcasting that extended its existing broadcast rights deal for the Division I men's basketball tournament (March Madness) through 2032, at a rate that will eventually increase to more than $1 billion per year.
So, the NCAA is one heck of a marketing machine. How well does it take care of the players? “Indentured” got its title from the fact that in spite of the massive revenues generated by the NCAA, the athletes still receive nothing beyond basic scholarships. There is a popular myth of the “full-ride, four-year scholarship.” But as in my day, scholarship letters must be resigned every year and can be terminated at any time, for any reason.
The NCAA says that it regularly “financially assists student-athletes in need of educational materials, clothing, and emergency travel expenses.” However, its 2014 tax form reveals it paid only $21,049 total in “grants and other assistance to domestic individuals” that year, and nothing in 2015. In 2014, when the University of Connecticut Huskies won the Division I men’s basketball championship, star guard Shabazz Napier said he often went to bed starving because of NCAA rules.
Thanks in large part to March Madness and the television and marketing revenue it generates, the NCAA now takes in nearly $1 billion a year in revenue and has $300 million in the bank. Its President, Mark Emmert, earns over $1.9 million a year. That more than any public college president in the U.S. And while that sounds like a lot of dough for the head of a nonprofit organization, keep in mind that fifty Division I college basketball coaches make more, the highest paid being Duke University’s Mike Krzyzewski, who receives just under $9 million. With all this money sloshing around in the system, it’s small wonder that the FBI recently began to indict coaches for crimes.
I think about these issues every time I watch the NCAA Division I college basketball tournament – March Madness. Sometimes I feel like a witness to a crime who just stands there and does nothing. I know the deal. Rich, mostly white men, have convinced themselves that poor, mostly black athletes need protection from the corrupting influence of money and those that would take advantage of them. They rationalize that the measures they take to shield them (even as their organization is raking in nearly $1 billion a year in revenue) are justified, even noble. Like that line in the movie Miss Congeniality – “It’s a scholarship program.”
I don’t know the solutions to fix the massive corruption that infests the NCAA. Paying college athletes a small stipend to live on would be a start, though. What I do know is that the NCAA shouldn’t be afforded the same nonprofit status as the organizations I work with that really are pursuing noble missions on behalf of their constituents and are making a difference in the world. If that happened, at least I’d feel a little better next March.