At University of Phoenix Stadium, signs of NCAA’s hypocrisy are literally all around

It’s all a sham.

The Arizona Cardinals mascot is seen in the hallways of University of Phoenix stadium during practice sessions for their NCAA Final Four tournament college basketball semifinal game Thursday, March 30, 2017, in Glendale, Ariz. CREDIT: AP Photo/David J. Phillip
The Arizona Cardinals mascot is seen in the hallways of University of Phoenix stadium during practice sessions for their NCAA Final Four tournament college basketball semifinal game Thursday, March 30, 2017, in Glendale, Ariz. CREDIT: AP Photo/David J. Phillip

The NCAA is an organization full of hypocrisies. It rakes in billions of dollars, but says there’s no money to pay the student-athletes. It works overtime to appease high-dollar corporate sponsors, but won’t let a star basketball player accept any perks. It routinely looks the other way when it comes to abuse scandals, and marginalizes its female athletes, all while running commercials focused on safety and equality.

But this year at the men’s Final Four, the NCAA’s brazen disregard for its purported values will be even harder than normal to ignore — it will literally be all around them. The men’s 2017 semifinals and championship game are being held at the University of Phoenix Stadium.

Most of the time, when a stadium is named after a university, it’s because the stadium is located at that school. But that isn’t the case here. University of Phoenix is a for-profit college. It doesn’t have a traditional campus. It’s not an Arizona public school. It doesn’t have a football team or a basketball team or any team at all.

The University of Phoenix is the largest for-profit college in the country best known for predatory enrollment practices and abysmal graduation and job placement rates. It’s a school that’s shown time and time again that it cares more about the bottom line than the education of its students, as illustrated by the fact that the school paid $155 million for naming rights to the Arizona stadium back in 2006.

“We view the University of Phoenix as a company, not a college.”

“We view the University of Phoenix as a company, not a college,” Maggie Thompson, the executive director of Generation Progress, a national organization that advocates for progressive policies that affect young people, told ThinkProgress. (Disclosure: Generation Progress is a project of the Center for American Progress. ThinkProgress is an editorially independent site housed at the Center for American Progress.)

“The fact that they paid over $150 million for stadium naming rights really underscores that this is a company that spends more money on advertising than educating.”

Dr. Kevin Kinser, a Professor of Education at Penn State University and expert on for-profit colleges, said Phoenix’s motives for the stadium naming deal have always been transparent.

“It’s clearly a way to embed the name University of Phoenix into the consciousness, so that they’re considered legitimate,” Kinser said. “It positions it as a major university.”

Since the naming rights deal a decade ago, the stadium has hosted all of the Arizona Cardinals home NFL games and multiple NCAA Bowl Championship Series games. Because of all of that exposure, the plan that Kinser laid out has worked — the University of Phoenix has remarkable name recognition that is closely tied to athletic excellence, despite the fact that the university itself doesn’t have an athletics department.

Fans arrive at University of Phoenix Stadium prior to an NFL football game between the New York Jets and the Arizona Cardinals, Monday, Oct. 17, 2016, in Glendale, Ariz. CREDIT: AP Photo/Rick Scuteri
Fans arrive at University of Phoenix Stadium prior to an NFL football game between the New York Jets and the Arizona Cardinals, Monday, Oct. 17, 2016, in Glendale, Ariz. CREDIT: AP Photo/Rick Scuteri

This infuriates Thompson, who feels that the NCAA is de-facto endorsing the University of Phoenix’s practices by hosting its premiere event there this weekend. In her mind, the statistics — graduation rates as low as 6 percent, the fact that only one in four Phoenix students are able to repay their loans — speak for themselves.

“The high-quality schools in the tournament shouldn’t allow themselves to be associated with a company like Phoenix,” Thompson said.

Even though President Obama tried to crack down on for-profit colleges like the University of Phoenix during his two terms in office, and enrollment in these institutions has dramatically decreased, there is no proof that conditions are improving for students. In fact, just recently the University of Phoenix was sold to a private equity company.

That means that Phoenix is not longer subject to oversight from the SEC, and therefore doesn’t have to disclose information about shares, ongoing investigations, lawsuits, or regulatory hurdles. And, under the administration of President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, it’s unlikely there will be much reigning in of for-profit colleges.

“The NCAA doesn’t have a lot of ground to stand on in terms of preying on students.”

After last year’s Final Four, Thompson and her colleagues at Generation Progress sent hundreds of letters to NCAA board members asking them to move this year’s event from University of Phoenix Stadium. Last week, they sent out another round of targeted e-mails asking that members of the NCAA board at least denounce Phoenix’s practices.

“We had no response, and that makes us question [the NCAA’s] commitment to their stated mission,” Thompson said. “There are a lot of students struggling with debt they cannot repay because of this predatory company, and the NCAA is complicit in this scheme that is putting many borrowers in default.”

She thought the campaign would pick up some steam because this University of Phoenix is essentially exploiting the same pool of students that the NCAA claims it helps and educates. But from the basketball players on the floor this weekend, to the millionaire coaches on the sideline, to the name on the side of the stadium, there will be reminders everywhere that the NCAA’s primary focus is not education — which is likely why Thompson’s campaign turned up crickets.

“The NCAA doesn’t have a lot of ground to stand on in terms of preying on students,” Kinser said.