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Columnists | NCAA Tournament  | Kevin McNeill Archive

By Kevin McNeill

August 22nd 2005

College Basketball: NIT, RIP

When David takes on Goliath, there are usually not a lot of writers who will be cheering on the big guy. But in the case of the NIT’s battle with the NCAA, one has to make an exception.

According to the NIT's complaint, the NCAA Tournament's gradual increase from 25 teams in 1974 to 64 teams in 1985 almost caused the NIT to go out of business. They also contended that the NCAA had eliminated the NIT's chance to land the best teams for its tournament by forcing schools that receive an NCAA Tournament invitation to accept it or sit out the postseason altogether. In the words of Jeffrey Kessler, the attorney for the five New York colleges that operate the Metropolitan Intercollegiate Basketball Association, the organization that runs the NIT, the NCAA "willfully, deliberately set out to get a monopoly, to eliminate competition, to make it impossible to compete."

However, not long after the lawsuit hit the front pages, the NCAA and NIT quickly arrived at an out of court settlement. In it, the trust-busting, monopoly-crushing institutions of fair competition agreed to hand the NIT over to the NCAA, in exchange for money. A lot of money.

In all, the NCAA agreed to pay $56.5 million to the five schools - Fordham University, Manhattan College, St. John's University, Wagner College and New York University. They will receive $40.5 million for the rights to tournaments and $16 million in litigation fees over a 10-year period. For you math majors, that’s more than $11 million per school, about what they would receive if each of their football teams played in a BCS bowl.

It is a sham. The NCAA achieved their dominance in the sport of college basketball, not by shady back room deals, nor by gaining an unfair advantage from Congress or oppressing the NIT. They got to be where they are (and college basketball as a whole is where it is today) because the NCAA was smarter. Plain and simple.

From it’s inception in 1938 (one year before the NCAA Tournament as we know it began), until around the early 1950’s, the NIT was actually considered the better of the two tournaments. Some of the top schools in the nation chose to participate in the NIT over the NCAA. Some chose both. In 1950, for example, City College of New York played in and won both tournaments.

But just a few years later, the NCAA decided to expand the number of teams it allowed into the tournament, from eight to twenty five. They had given automatic berths to all conference champions, giving conference titles new importance. The NIT was still inviting only a dozen teams.

In 1962, the NIT further added to their troubles by allowing the NCAA to have the first pick of teams. However, that same year Loyola, Mississippi State, Dayton, Houston and St. John's all chose to participate in the NIT rather than accept invitations to the NCAA tournament. Eight years later, AL McGuire’s Marquette squad, considered one of the best in the nation, chose to go the NIT over the NCAA, because they were unhappy with their seed.

But those teams were the exception. Every other team that received an invitation to the NCAA Tournament accepted. Also, despite the success and growth the NCAA was enjoying from expanding their tournament, up until 1965, the NIT still only included 14 teams. In fact, it wasn’t until 1979 that the number of teams invited to the NIT was increased to 24.

Coincidentally, that was the year the NCAA expanded again to 40 teams. It was also the year of the historic Indiana State-Michigan State title game featuring Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. That game, to this day, stands as the highest rated college basketball game of all time.

In 1982, the NCAA adopted the now-infamous “commitment to participate” rule, which is at the center of the NIT’s lawsuit. Again, the rule stated that if a team is invited to the NCAA Tournament, that team must either accept, or not participate in any post-season tournament at all.

That rule, guaranteeing that the best teams would all participate in one tournament, along with the jump in television ratings (thanks to the likes of Bird, Magic, Phi Slamma Jamma, Ewing and a guy named Jordan) is believed to be largely responsible for the NCAA’s decision to expand the NCAA Tournament to an unthinkable 64 teams in 1985. The NCAA simultaneously signed a new television contract with ESPN for the rights to the first and second round games.

ESPN’s exciting coverage of the tournament, (old farts like me can remember the network bouncing from one thrilling finish to the next), is credited with further popularizing the sport, eventually leading to CBS’s $6 billion deal with the NCAA in 1999 to fully cover the entire tournament. At the time, it was one of the largest television contracts in sports history.

So there you have it. In a nutshell, how the NCAA Tournament became “March Madness” and the NIT became “Not In Tournament.” The only thing the NCAA “willfully” and “deliberately” did was do everything they could to make their tournament better over the decades while the NIT was asleep at the switch.

Some would zero in on the “Commitment to Participate Rule” as proof of the NCAA’s malfeasance. However no school has ever complained about the rule or, until now, taken steps to abolish it. This comes as no surprise. The idea of any school willfully opting out of a chance to win a national title, in a tournament in which every single game is televised (recruiting season never ends remember) is simply ridiculous.

As is any theory that somehow only the best schools can win a title, and therefore lower seeded teams might prefer to play in the NIT instead. The first year of the 64 team tournament, the Villanova Wildcats, a team that compiled a 19-10 regular season record and an eight-seed no less, shocked the country and won it all.

Many also claim that the NIT never stood a chance because the NCAA makes the rules that the NIT must follow. True enough, however, no rule was ever passed prohibiting the NIT from expanding sooner than it did – the key to the NCAA’s success. In addition, the NCAA’s commitment rule did not take place until 1982, long after the NIT became irrelevant.

Yes, there are a myriad of problems with the NCAA, specifically with how they have dealt, and continue to deal, with their student athletes, from whom they make their fortune. But this is not about that. This is about five NCAA schools filing a publicity-seeking lawsuit in order to get the most money as possible from a long-overdue buyout by the NCAA.

For each sport that holds a postseason (except college football) there can be only one champion and one playoff. There can be only one dominant entity that provides it. Every sports fan wants a true champion, who clearly rises above the very best competition.

For that reason, whenever two separate entities vie for the same players or teams, and attempt to stage separate championships, eventually the competitive spirit will draw the best athletes and teams together so they may compete against one another. One league will thrive, one will fold. Call it a monopoly. Call it sports capitalism. It’s just the way it is.

It is even the case when separate leagues have loyal fans, and change the game for the better, as was the case with the American Basketball Association and the American Football League. Eventually, they see the light, get what they can out of the league that swallowed them, and leave the stage.

That is what essentially happened to the NIT, only it came about 50 years too late.

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