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SBJ/September 1 - 7, 2003/Opinion
NCAA’s ‘2 in 4’ tourney limit a half-baked idea
Published September 1, 2003
In April 2001, the NCAA Management Council cleared the way for the NCAA to limit a school's participation in exempt basketball tournaments to two within a four-year period while increasing the maximum number of overall games allowed from 28 to 29.
The stated rationale was that exempt tournament games created academic hardship because they required teams to be off campus during critical study periods. NCAA officials also believe that the limit of "two in four" creates more opportunity for smaller schools that otherwise wouldn't be invited to play.
OK, superficially the reasons are laudable, especially in light of the notorious graduation rates of college basketball players.
But wait. Many exempt games and tournaments are promoted by outside groups not associated with the NCAA or the colleges that participate. And while the individual participating schools realize some pecuniary gain, the entrepreneurs, not the NCAA, control the cash flow. TV rights and other revenue opportunities are outside the NCAA grip.
In view of all that, it's not unreasonable to label as pretext all the talk about student welfare.
The NCAA argues that on behalf of its member institutions it, not the promoters, should control college basketball schedules. The NCAA avers that each exempted tournament, usually a preseason event, counts as merely one game against the increased Division I schedule maximum of 29 and that teams usually play several games in these tournaments.
But with only two opportunities to play every four years, the number of marquee teams begins to dwindle. In the years when teams do not play in exempt tournament games, marquee schools must balance large non-conference schedules with non-conference revenue opportunities, most likely home games against inferior opponents.
The schools remaining eligible for an exempt tournament, many of which are in so-called mid-major conferences, are not, by themselves, attractive gate draws. Promoters counter that fans won't pay to see these smaller, less renowned schools, which will kill the promoters' business.
For the college basketball fan and for those mid-major schools, "two in four" presents a deeper issue here.
The exempt tournaments are tremendous opportunities for smaller-conference schools to compete against the big boys. Participation helps smaller programs recruit and build stature. The chance to score early season upsets over Goliath puts some of these smaller schools on the map and enhances their NCAA tournament selection chances.
This point is even more significant when considering that but for the exempt tournaments, most major programs are loath to play their smaller brethren on a neutral court or on the road. Thus, the smaller schools' chances for upset or even competitiveness are greatly reduced.
Moreover, with the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee's emphasis on playing stronger schedules, many major programs won't or can't afford to bother with the unrecognized and too often disrespected mid-major.
Year after year there have been exciting seasonal runs by a few mid-major schools that have captivated the national audience. Many of these runs were launched by an early season upset of a highly ranked team representing a major program.
Schools like Gonzaga, Pepperdine, Ball State, Richmond — to name just a few on a long list — have pulled some terrific upsets in the NCAA tournament, fueled by early season success against a power team.
On July 28, U.S. District Judge Edmund Sargus Jr. ordered the NCAA to end the "two in four" imposition. He didn't buy the NCAA student welfare arguments, citing the increase in the number of games.
I strongly agree. If promoting academics is the real objective of "two in four," then there are more effective ways to increase class time. Don't resort to half measures; go the whole hog.
I offer a modest proposal: Do away with conference tournaments. Or better yet, reduce the number of at-large berths in the NCAA tournament and keep March Madness in the month of March without spilling over into April.
Extreme? Of course. But the extremist nature of my suggestion magnifies the weakness of the NCAA's academic argument because there are more effective methods out there to improve the academic experiences for college-basketball-playing students.
Sargus also rejected the NCAA argument that the NCAA was trying to level the playing field. Instead he recognized that without the exempt tournaments the big boys would only play at home vs. the little guys, with little interest and little revenue for the latter.
Most telling, the judge ignored NCAA pleas about controlling its schedules and found the "two in four" rule as anti-competitive without any redeeming interest or "countervailing beneficial participation."
But despite Sargus' well-reasoned opinion, on Aug. 20 the NCAA won a stay from execution of his order pending appeal from the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.
I'm concerned that the NCAA will exercise its considerable influence and lobbying clout to reverse the District Court ruling. The stay also places several preseason tournaments in jeopardy for 2003.
Like most powerful litigants, the NCAA can wage and can win this type of economic warfare.
College sports are under more pressure than I can remember in my 33 years' experience as a student athlete, television broadcaster and University of Maryland trustee. NCAA President Myles Brand recently lamented the creeping shadow of scandal and disrepute over the college sports landscape. He equated the problems of coaches, student athletes and programs to a "crime wave."
When under siege, one should pick carefully the battles to fight and fight the battles that can be won. Having acknowledged the problems, Brand and the NCAA should step back a moment and assess the strategy.
The NCAA should now understand that it went too far in litigating this issue and has placed itself in a position where a federal judge has opined that the NCAA acted anti-competitively, a characterization that will surely haunt the association in future legal contests.
Member institutions want to play these games every year. Fans like the system the way it was. And it's OK to leave some money on the table for a few promoters.
Now is the time to marshal the resources necessary to solve the academic and ethical woes besieging college sports. The NCAA may come from behind and win the legal contest.
But for the sake of fans who revel in the unpredictability that parity begets in college sports, and for some much-needed goodwill amidst the NCAA's acknowledged moral bankruptcy among too many of its member institutions, I hope the NCAA decides to let this one go.
Len Elmore is an analyst for ESPN and CEO of online educational services firm Test University.