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Monday, April 05, 2004

NIT v. NCAA: Skip (aka the Sports Economist) links to a story about the NIT, which has filed an antitrust suit against the NCAA. The summary of the lawsuit (as written by the lead attorney for the NIT) is that the NCAA prevents teams from entering the NIT if it receives an invitation to the NCAA tournament, under pain of NCAA penalties.

Dave Gavitt, a former commissioner of the Big East, responded to the story in an article this weekend. His argument is less of a legal one, and more one of common sense and sports:

    The model Mr. Kessler promotes of competing tournaments would lead to a chaotic championship selection process, rife with special deals, special payments and competing titles, as has been the case in other sports such as boxing. This, of course, is not what the N.C.A.A. membership requires or demands. In fact, the antitrust lawsuit is merely an attempt by a small minority to force through pressure what it was unable to persuade the majority of the membership to do more than 20 years ago.

    Imagine, if you will, a group of sports promoters deciding to put on an invitational tournament at the end of the N.B.A. season and then suing the N.B.A. because the league would not let its best teams participate in the new event. Except for its historical presence, that is exactly what the postseason N.I.T. attempts to argue in its antitrust litigation against the N.C.A.A.

    When the players on the 2004 N.C.A.A. championship men's team begin cutting down the nets tomorrow night in San Antonio, they want to know — and basketball fans want to know — that they are the best because they beat the best. A true national champion will have earned that high honor on the court.

    That is not a monopoly. That is the difference between an invitational tournament geared to promote basketball in Madison Square Garden and a true national championship.

I agree with the realistic arguments made in the Gavitt piece. Can you imagine the shady dealings that would emerge if teams could jockey for spots in the NIT versus coming to the NCAA? It would only take a few high-profile teams jumping ship (perhaps because of some hefty pay-out guarantees) for the NIT to regain its previous prominence. While this may not seem likely, there are a number of high-profile coaches that could protest a poor seeding, a perceived unfair bracket or a number of other NCAA actions by moving over to the NIT. In addition, the NIT could make under-the-table financial payments to schools or athletic departments. Once again, the players would be the ones hurt, as they most likely would have no choice in the matter and could possibly lose out on their chance to play in the NCAA Tournament.

Legally, though, there may be an anti-trust problem. The NCAA sanctions the NIT, and allows its teams and players to participate, so long as it does not interfere with their own tournament. By seeming to selectively grant permission, there seems to be a legal issue. I do not know a great deal about anti-trust, but perhaps the NCAA could avoid this problem by not sanctioning the NIT. The NCAA should not be forced to sanction events; all of its members are in the association voluntarily and if they do not approve, they could pull out. Many schools threatened to do this in football before the NCAA sanctioned the Bowl Championship Series (a group of games the association does not run). I would love to learn more about this, so please email me or post comments if you have insights.

In the end, there is probably little threat, because almost every team (and definitely all from the 10's down) thinks that they have at least an outside shot at advancing, giving its team invaluable exposure and a chance to play for a championship. This would not be present in the NIT. So, even if the NCAA loses this lawsuit, or settles and changes its rule, the sport should not change greatly. At least I hope not.

Correction: In the original post, I misread the Sports Economist's take on the issue. His quote: "A simple requirement that a school commit to the NCAA tournament if an invitation were accepted would have been sufficient, and lawful." Thus, the key is that once a team accepts a bid to the NCAA tournament, they should not be able to pull out (which makes perfect sense). I have updated the above post accordingly.


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