(Check back this month for continued Key Elements Group coverage on this issue)

March Madness is here again. The annual month-long tournament is one of the biggest in U.S. sports. As the 68 team bracket whittles down over the course of the month, millions of fans tune in across the country. The final between the University of Kentucky and the University of Connecticut last year alone attracted 21.2 million TV viewers.

The tournament brings together players’ dreams of athletic greatness and the United States’ unshakeable enthusiasm for college basketball. Not to mention broadcasters’ unshakeable enthusiasm for big profits.

Over the course of March, 2014 tournament ad revenues nearly exceeded the entirety of the NFL postseason that year. This, of course, includes the Superbowl, which hawks 30-second spots for $4.5 million, or about $150,000 a second. Between 1981 and 2011, the price of March Madness broadcast rights multiplied by 50. The 2014 tournament cost a gargantuan $10.8 billion, which CBS and Turner Broadcasting were more than willing to pay considering the lucrative returns.

The $10.8 billion went to the NCAA (the National Collegiate Athletic Association), a group that regulates collegiate athletics and controls media rights to college sports events.

On-and-off, the NCAA is the target of scrutiny, largely due to the fact that it is a registered 501.c.3 nonprofit. The organization’s stated purpose is to promote academic excellence and achievement through athletics. This mission – no matter how worthy it sounds – is at best marginally pursued, and at worst used as an altruistic-sounding cover for the group’s lack of transparency, its deleterious effect on general student populations, and its exploitive profiteering of student labor. This poses the question: if a nonprofit is not pursuing its mission, what exactly is it doing?

Last year, Shabazz Napier – the exceptional UConn point guard – famously opened up about his difficult college experience, informing reporters, “We’re definitely blessed to get a scholarship to our universities, but at the end of the day that doesn’t cover everything. We do have hungry nights that we don’t have enough money to get food . . . but I still got to play up to my capabilities.”

On a deeper look, it is rather shocking that a key participant – whose labor makes the tournament possible – literally went nights without food while nonprofit executives and publicly-employed coaches enjoyed multi-million dollar paychecks. Napier is now a pro, playing with the Miami Heat, and is therefore in a much more secure position. But few players have that luxury – fewer than 2 percent of NCAA athletes from the two money makers (Basketball and Football) wind up in professional leagues. For hundreds of struggling players, there is no silver-lining at the end of their college careers, especially considering that tough training regimens often prevent students from receiving meaningful educations.

This month, Key Elements Group will peer into the NCAA, providing analysis on how its practices and operations contribute to athlete’s careers – both in sports and education – ultimately assessing just how well the association follows its purported goals, and asking the question: what does it mean when nonprofits veer off course?


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