Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

The NCAA, Just Your Average Billion-Dollar Charity, Needs Its Free Labor Back

NCAA President Mark Emmert congratulates Jay Wright on Villanova’s 2018 National Championship.
NCAA President Mark Emmert congratulates Jay Wright on Villanova’s 2018 National Championship.
Photo: Getty

NCAA President Mark Emmert has a base salary of something like $2.3 million. In 2017, he made $3.9 million. In 2018, he dropped off to $2.7 million.

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I only mention it because that’s a whole lot of money for the head of a nonprofit, which the NCAA technically is, to be pulling in. Of course, there are plenty of nonprofits that pay their presidents garbage bags full of money, but the NCAA is different. Rather than relying on the generosity of donors and fundraisers, the NCAA makes its money – all of its money – off free student labor. No free student labor? A whole bunch of people lose their jobs.

Which is why yesterday the NCAA announced it’s furloughing all 600 employees based at its Indianapolis headquarters, from three to eight weeks, depending on their seasonal responsibilities. To be fair, the NCAA implemented other cost-cutting measures before this. Back in the spring, Emmert and his team took a 20 percent pay cut, vice -presidents took a cut of 10 percent. The company also offered early retirement packages and held off in filing vacant positions. “Senior executives” are not subject to the furloughs.

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On its website, the NCAA says, “Television and marketing rights fees, primarily from the Division I men’s basketball championship, generate the majority of our revenue.” And, of course, that money comes from people wanting to watch unpaid college students play for free. When that free labor is unavailable, there’s less revenue for the entire organization.

Reportedly, the NCAA makes nearly it’s entire annual revenue, which was $1.1 billion (with a “b”) in 2019, from the men’s college basketball tournament each March. The rest comes from putting on various championships in various sports, with college football and basketball’s national championships undoubtedly being the most lucrative.

While the NCAA reported bringing in just over $1 billion in 2020, the total value of their media contracts, which run through 2023, is $19.6 billion. Did I mention the NCAA doesn’t pay taxes? They don’t – they’re designated as a 501(c)(3) charitable organization under the Internal Revenue Code.

So fine, I’ll bite. Let’s go with the $1.1 billion number. The NCAA keeps about half of that (let’s say $500 million, conservatively), they distribute the rest of the money to member schools, who use it for athletics scholarships and other costs.

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Think about that for a second. Think of all the people, all the adults, all the schools, all the “student”-athletes depending on that money. Five hundred million. One point one billion. Nineteen point six billion dollars.

How can we ever expect the NCAA to make decisions in the best interests of student-athletes when so much is at stake? And by “so much,” I mean the jobs and livelihoods of grown adults who depend on the free labor of college students.

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Something feels inherently and deeply wrong about that.

It’s easy to talk about revenue and profit and scholarships and have it all sound vaguely OK – until you actually take a look at the hard numbers. Like 600 people not getting paid because college students were unable to work for free this year. No business, and certainly not one classified as a “charity” by the federal government, should be based on the constant availability of free labor from teenagers.

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University of South Carolina quarterback Jay Urich puts a hand on the shoulder of offensive lineman Vincent Murphy while joining teammates and other student athletes on campus during a demonstration against racial inequality on August 31.
University of South Carolina quarterback Jay Urich puts a hand on the shoulder of offensive lineman Vincent Murphy while joining teammates and other student athletes on campus during a demonstration against racial inequality on August 31.
Photo: Getty

Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the NCAA relies disproportionately on Black athletes for its income, with zero compensation for their work. Back in August, Deadspin’s DeAbea Walker reported on a study showing that the NCAA robs Black football and basketball players of billions in generational wealth. The same study revealed that, in a fair market, revenue sports athletes should make about a million dollars over four years. Instead, the money student athletes bring in is transferred to their coaches, athletic directors, and guys like Emmert.

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The same people charged with making decisions in the best interests of student-athletes.

So yes, despite increased warning that COVID-19 can lead to long-term heart defects, and despite the obvious danger of having athletes huddled together, on and off the field, we will have a college football national championship. We’re going to have a college basketball season and, come hell or high water, we’re going to have March Madness in 2021. Forget words like “revenue;” there are too many people whose jobs depend on the kids playing.

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We’ve known for years that the NCAA’s decisions are financially motivated above all else, but there’s something about seeing the number of people missing out on paychecks when student athletes don’t play that illuminates the stark reality of the entire college athletics system. And it feels wrong.

It’s past time for the rest of America (and our congressional representatives) to take a long, hard look at the NCAA and the cold, hard cash behind its decisions, no matter what the org says about the welfare of student athletes. Forget the argument about scholarships being payment - scholarships get students in the door to make money for the university. That money goes to pay people like Mark Emmert $2.3 million dollars in base salary. It goes to pay Emmert’s entire senior leadership team, all the vice -presidents, and all those working under them. As long as so many people are financially beholden to athletes playing games for free, their best interests will always come second. If we’re lucky.

Former sports-talking / law-talking chick. Push out the jive, bring in the love.

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