As March Madness wrapped up last week, the NCAA unveiled a proposal to expand the men’s basketball tournament to 96 teams, an increase of 31 from the current 65-team competition. Although the plan has not been confirmed, it appears likely the NCAA will adopt the expansion by next season.

While the expansion proposal has generated its share of critics, many seem to support the idea. One major reason for the expansion is to generate an increase in revenue for the NCAA (and the participating schools), since more teams in the tournament means more games aired and more games watched. In addition, the new larger tournament could possibly be sold to more than one television network.

However, the NCAA’s alleged focus on money could lead to antitrust liability for the organization, as Gabriel A. Feldman, law professor and Director of Tulane’s Sports Law Program, explained this week in an online editorial. The trouble stems from the fact that a bigger tournament will result in an added week or more of missed classes for the student-athletes. Feldman explains:

Under the NCAA’s expansion proposal, 32 teams (the top eight seeds from each region) will get a bye. The other 64 teams (the 9-24 seeds in each region) will play first-round games on the first Thursday or Friday of the tournament. The remaining 64 teams (the 32 teams with the bye and the 32 survivors from the first round) will then play on Saturday or Sunday. The winners of those games will then play on the following Tuesday and Wednesday, followed by the Sweet Sixteen on Thursday and Friday, the Elite Eight on Saturday and Sunday, and then the Final Four the following week.

The fact that more students will miss more classes impinges on one of the traditional reasons that NCAA regulations generally receive a relatively high degree of deference for a sports association, namely, its promotion of academics (the other reason being its promotion of amateurism by restricting athlete compensation). Courts have routinely deferred to an NCAA regulation if it can be found to support either amateurism or academics, but if new rules (such as those that would set up a 96-team tournament) appear to put the NCAA’s financial interests ahead of students’ academic interests, such a justification would not hold weight, Feldman argues.

The impact of the tournament on student-athlete academics is one that should be taken seriously. Although the NCAA boasts that the most recent Graduation Success Rate study of men’s basketball players showed that 66% of those that entered as freshmen in 2002 earned four-year degrees, the same press release admitted that men’s basketball student-athletes “typically have not fared well in graduation-rate studies.” Further, African-American athletes were recently reported to have particularly low graduation rates in comparison to almost 100% graduation rates among white athletes.

The NCAA has taken some action in recent years to help improve graduation numbers, sometimes by pulling scholarships from schools with low graduation rates. However, many believe this is not enough. African-American leaders have recently called on the NCAA to do something about the low graduation statistics for black student-athletes, and other critics claim the NCAA should completely bar schools with poor graduation rates from participating in the March tournament.

Therefore, should the NCAA expand to 96 teams with the game schedule Feldman envisions, the stage seems set for critics to challenge NCAA regulations. It will then be up to the courts to evaluate whether NCAA policies are indeed protecting student-athletes, or just its own pockets.

– Rachel Friedman

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