Opinion: The NCAA Should Have Its Nonprofit Status Revoked
One of the great pleasures in working with nonprofits is getting up every day and knowing that you are helping them do good on behalf of their constituencies. There are nonprofits out there that advocate on behalf of people living with autism, cancer, ALS and cystic fibrosis. Others 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. Today begins 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 (UVA). You may have heard that, one year ago today, UVA achieved the dubious distinction of being the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 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 it is now 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 12-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, 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 50 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 to be protected 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.”
Wendell Carter is a rookie with the NBA’s Chicago Bulls after playing at Duke University for a single season. He is a so-called, “one-and-doner,” a player who goes to college for one year because the NCAA and the NBA have agreed that a player must be 19 years of age before he can enter the NBA. After leaving Duke, Wendell’s mother, Kylia Carter, said the following at a meeting of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics in Washington, D.C.
“The problem that I see is not with the student-athletes, it’s not with the coaches or the institutions of higher learning, but it’s with a system… where the laborers are the only people who are not being compensated for the work that they do, while those in charge receive mighty compensation. The only two systems where I’ve known that to be in place are slavery and the prison system. And now I see the NCAA as overseers of a system that is identical to that. So, it’s difficult for me to sit here and not say that there is a problem that is sickening.”
So many nonprofits serve noble missions, helping countless people in countless ways. The NCAA is not among them. It’s time for its nonprofit status to be revoked.
Otis Fulton, Ph.D., spent most of his career in the education industry, working at the psychometric research and development firm MetaMetrics Inc., Pearson Education and others. Since 2013, he has focused on the nonprofit sector, applying psychology to fundraising and donor behavior at Turnkey. He is the co-author of the 2017 book, ”Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising,” and the 2023 book, "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape," and is a frequent speaker at national nonprofit conferences. With Katrina VanHuss, he co-authors a blog at NonProfit PRO, “Peeling the Onion,” on the intersection of psychology and philanthropy.
Otis is a much sought-after copywriter for nonprofit fundraising messages. He has written campaigns for UNICEF, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, March of Dimes, Susan G. Komen, the USO and dozens of other organizations. He has a Ph.D. in social psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Virginia, where he also played on UVA’s first ACC champion basketball team.
Katrina VanHuss has helped national nonprofits raise funds and friends since 1989 when she founded Turnkey. Her client’s successes and her dedication to research have made her a sought-after speaker, presenting at national conferences for Blackbaud, Peer to Peer Professional Forum, Nonprofit PRO, The Need Help Foundation and her clients’ national meetings. The firm’s work is underpinned by the study and application of behavioral economics and social psychology. Turnkey provides project engagements, coaching, counsel and staffing to nonprofits seeking to improve revenue or create new revenue. Her work extends into organizational alignment efforts and executive coaching.
Katrina regularly shares her wit and business experiences on her and Otis Fulton's NonProfit PRO blog “Peeling the Onion.” She and Otis are also co-authors of the books, "Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising" and "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape." When not writing or researching, Katrina likes to make things — furniture from reclaimed wood, new gardens, food with no recipe. Katrina’s favorite Saturday is spent cleaning out the garage, mowing the grass, making something new, all while listening to loud music by now-deceased black women, throwing in a few sets on the weight bench off and on, then collapsing on the couch with her husband Otis to gang-watch new Netflix series whilst drinking sauvignon blanc.
Katrina grew up on a Virginia beef cattle and tobacco farm with her three brothers. She is accordingly skilled in hand to hand combat and witty repartee — skills gained at the expense of her brothers. Katrina’s claim to fame is having made it to the “American Gladiator” Richmond competition as a finalist in her late 20s, progressing in the competition until a strangely large blonde woman knocked her off a pedestal with an oversized pain-inducing Q-tip. Katrina’s mantra for life is “Be nice. Do good. Embrace embarrassment.” Clearly she’s got No. 3 down.