If you are reading this, then, at this moment, you have taken a break from filling out your NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament bracket. Not to worry. This article is brief, so in no time you’ll be back to comparing foul shooting percentages between Creighton and Rhode Island.
Given the money involved with the event, it’s not surprising the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament has been the subject of some legal disputes, especially involving intellectual property rights.
Jason Gay, sports columnist for The Wall Street Journal, recently reported that the NCAA is not happy with USA Gymnastics for wanting to use “The Final Five” for its gold medal winning team from the Rio Olympics. As Gay put it: “You know, because Final Five sounds like Final Four.”
What’s more, The NC2A is less than pleased with the Big 10 Conference wanting to trademark the phrase “March is On!”
Gay himself came up against the NCAA’s don’t-mess-with-us attitude in 2014 when, while covering the East regional final at Madison Square Garden, between Connecticut and Michigan State, he violated the NCAA’s “cup policy.” As he recounted in a wonderfully entertaining column, the NCAA forbids outside cups at tournament games and requires that beverages be consumed in official NCAA cups. Gay, aware of this policy and looking to wage a small protest—and, no doubt, have some fun with it—drank a beverage from a coffee mug he brought along featuring eleven illustrations of cats.
He was approached by a tournament staffer who made a subtle threat that, on account of Gay’s cat mug, the Journal could be denied credentials to cover the Final Four the following weekend. Gay was forced to turn over the mug. It was returned to him after the game.
But the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament also shows up in cases that have nothing to do with the tournament. This too is not surprising, given the hold that the tournament has on the public consciousness. Consider these judicial opinions where the NCAA Tournament made an appearance on a different kind of court than basketball.
In People v. Evans, the California Court of Appeal held in 2011 that the trial court did not commit error when explaining to a jury how it may use its common sense, despite there being no evidence of a fact presented. The trial court gave as an example someone accused of theft of jewelry in April whose defense was, at the time of the theft, he was home watching the NCAA basketball tournament—March Madness. The court explained that the jury could use its common sense in assessing the testimony, even though nobody introduced evidence of the dates of the tournament.
In Urofsky v. Gilmore, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit Court in 2000 upheld the constitutionality of a Virginia statute to the extent that it precluded professors of public colleges and universities from accessing sexually explicit materials, on state-owned or leased computers, for work-related purposes. The dissent saw it differently, noting that “[t]he Commonwealth has not explained, and cannot possibly explain, why employees who access sexually explicit material are any less ‘efficient’ at their work than employees who check espn.com every twenty minutes during the NCAA tournament.”
In Pirschel v. Sorrell, the U.S District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky in 1998 upheld the suspension of a student found in possession of beer while attending a basketball tournament at another school. The court looked at the impact that a school’s players can have on its team’s reputation and applied that conclusion to the team’s fans:
“While a school may reap the benefits of a successful team and well-behaved fans, it may also be strapped with a negative label in the event its teams display poor sportsmanship. For example, most, if not all, University of Kentucky basketball fans recall Duke University star Christian Laettner stepping on a Kentucky player’s chest during a NCAA tournament game. Although that incident took place several years ago, many still consider Duke a dirty team.”
Likewise, the court observed, “Just as a school may be labeled as having excellent students based on others’ perception of their conduct, a negative reputation will result if students’ behavior is unbecoming.”
In Stainbrook v. Kent in the U.S. District Court of Minnesota, the parties in 1991 agreed that serving a summons and complaint upon LSU, by delivering the documents to its assistant to the athletic director, while the LSU men’s basketball team was competing in the regional final of the NCAA tournament, did not constitute proper service.
Meinke v. VHK Genesis Labs, a 2006 case in the U.S. District Court for Northern District of Illinois, involved employment-related claims brought by a sales employee who worked in the field and from home. He was directed to report to the company’s offices on March 18, 2004. When the employee did not show up, his boss called and told him to turn off the NCAA basketball tournament. He denied that he was watching the tournament at the time.
Denial. That’s my advice to you.
Randy Maniloff is an attorney at White and Williams in Philadelphia, where he represents insurers in coverage disputes under a host of policies. He is the co-author of General Liability Insurance Coverage – Key Issues in Every State, (3rd edition, National Underwriter) and the publisher of the newsletter and website www.CoverageOpinions.info