By Ferd Lewis
Against the backdrop of the NCAA Basketball Tournament, far from the spotlight of the Final Four this week, another high stakes showdown is taking place.
In U.S. District Court in Columbus, Ohio, five plaintiffs representing early-season tournaments are proceeding in their federal antitrust suit against the NCAA.
And if what happens there doesn't make the highlights on "SportsCenter" or find a place on Billy Packer's telestrator, it is nevertheless being watched closely.
Potentially at stake is the fate of not only the preseason National Invitation Tournament, Coaches vs. Cancer Classic and Black Coaches Association Invitational, which are among the parties to the suit, but the Rainbow Classic, Maui Invitational, and others, which are interested observers.
Everybody with a tournament between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day is an interested bystander in this one. For what happens in Columbus over the coming weeks figures to shape the future of the industry.
Nearly two-thirds of the 318 Division I basketball teams members of all 31 NCAA tournament-eligible conferences, according to a study by Wayne Duke, who runs the Maui Invitational played in one or more of the tournaments in 2000-01.
If the plaintiffs carry the day, the NCAA will have to take a step back from proposed legislation that would severely limit teams available for the tournaments.
But if the NCAA prevails, it would be free to implement rules that could lead to the demise of all or most tournaments.
"It could affect all of us," said Riley Wallace, University of Hawai'i basketball coach.
Currently, schools are allowed to play in up to two certified tournaments in a four-year period without having it count against the NCAA 28-game limit. On deck is legislation that would allow all schools to play a maximum of 29 games with no exempted contests, stripping away the incentive to play in the tournaments.
UH athletic director Henry "Hank" Vasconcellos secured the original exemption for the Rainbows in the 1950s. The thought was that the extra games would provide financial incentive to play here. But in subsequent years the NCAA has gone on to hand out exemptions to everybody with a basketball and a trophy.
Using the smoke screen of lost class time most tournaments are held during vacation periods some of the power conferences have put pressure on the NCAA to do away with the events. Without the tournaments, the well-to-do schools can keep the money from scheduling more non-conference games while reducing the number of games against mid-majors on neutral floors.
While the most-watched action is on the court in Atlanta this week, what's happening in the court in Columbus won't be overlooked.