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‘It changed the world.’ How a 1984 Supreme Court decision still shapes college football

The Charlotte Observer logo The Charlotte Observer 8/7/2022 Andrew Carter, The Charlotte Observer

Almost 40 years have passed and Andy Coats still remembers the conversation, however brief it might’ve been, that he shared with Supreme Court Justice Byron White in the midst of perhaps the most important legal case in college athletics history.

Coats was the mayor of Oklahoma City, and the lawyer who in 1984 successfully argued before the Supreme Court that the NCAA’s control of football television rights violated federal antitrust law. And White, once a Heisman Trophy runner-up and top NFL draft selection who attended Yale Law School in his earliest years in the pros, sat on the nation’s highest court.

White’s words still play over in Coats’ mind. Decades later, Coats recently recited them like this:

“He said, ‘Andy,’ he said, ‘You may win that case. But I’ve got to tell you: You’ll regret it.’”

Coats is 87 now and still a professor at the University of Oklahoma law school, where he was once dean. His voice is still strong, deep as his Sooner roots, and his mind still sharp, clear with memories of attending Oklahoma football games with his father in the years after World War II, and the one and only day he argued a case in front of the Supreme Court and defeated the NCAA.

No, Coats said in a gravely drawl, “I never did exactly regret” the most memorable legal victory of his life. And yet he recognized its legacy, one that has only become more powerful in this long summer of consternation over the future of college athletics, its direction and the fear that a large part of its soul, if it ever had one to begin with, is disappearing.

“College football, I think, is in terrible trouble,” Coats said during a recent phone interview, and in his mind all of that trouble — the lack of oversight over name, image and likeness; the free-for-all of the transfer portal; the never-ending merry-go-round of conference realignment, with schools chasing TV money — could be traced back to that Supreme Court ruling in 1984, and his role in it.

“Everything that’s happened, really, is because of that case,” he said. “And the television dollars that opened up.”

A line of demarcation

It often feels like the most consequential competitions in college sports are unrelated to sport itself. They’re not about the best teams, but the best football television ratings. The biggest brands. The most lucrative markets. The schools with the most potential to generate TV revenue.

When Jim Phillips, the second-year ACC Commissioner, spoke last month at his league’s media days, he spent a lot of time addressing finances. That the ACC faces a large revenue gap relative to the Big Ten and SEC isn’t new. Yet the disparity — hundreds of millions of dollars wide and growing — has come more into focus with the Big Ten’s impending additions of USC and UCLA.

For the first time, a major conference is expanding in a way that will leave it with a coast-to-coast presence. The Big Ten’s decision to go West followed the SEC’s decision to do the same, in adding Oklahoma and Texas, which followed the ACC’s decision to the do the same, in adding Louisville and football-independent Notre Dame, which followed Maryland’s defection from the ACC to the Big Ten, which followed Texas A&M and Missouri’s defections from the Big 12 to the SEC, which followed the ACC poaching the Big East, again, this time for Pittsburgh and Syracuse.

And, at the root of it all: that Supreme Court case in 1984.

NCAA vs. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma.

The case represents a line of demarcation in college athletics, a before and after. In the before, the NCAA controlled football television broadcast rights, in much the same way as it does now for college basketball’s postseason, with the NCAA tournament. Starting with the emergence of television in the early 1950s, the NCAA negotiated football TV broadcast rights on behalf of its members.

By the early 1980s, the arrangement had become onerous for those schools that believed they’d command more money on the open market. The NCAA, after all, limited schools to six television appearances in any two-year span and clung to the argument that more televised games would decrease attendance. It precluded schools or conferences from negotiating their own football TV broadcast deals.

Because of the NCAA, then, college football television inventory was limited, and major-conference schools shared broadcast time with ones with smaller followings. In the early 1980s, ABC, which held college football’s broadcast rights in those days, aired a hodgepodge of games, all regionalized to local audiences.

One 1980 ABC promo, advertising upcoming match-ups, was typical of any fall Saturday: a Maryland-Duke game airing in one area; Jackson State-Grambling State in another; Dartmouth-Cornell in another. And after that: a lineup that included Navy-Washington, Furman-Appalachian State and UMass-Boston. Not Boston College — Boston University.

Soon there came a revolt. By the early 1980s more than 60 schools, including many of the largest and most powerful, had formed the College Football Association, which sought to negotiate TV deals in defiance of the NCAA. The NCAA, with the threat of severely penalizing those schools that stepped out, dug in.

The legal fight began. It ended in 1984 with the Supreme Court, with a 7-2 decision, delivering a debilitating blow to the NCAA, which had never before endured such a defeat. Suddenly, schools and conferences had the freedom to negotiate their own football television deals. Back in Coats’ office in Oklahoma City, reporters began visiting and calling for his reaction.

He remembers what he was wearing: “a summer coat and a bowtie,” he said, while he sat at his desk and allowed the Court’s opinion to sink in. The next day friends from all over the country were calling him to say they’d seen him on the front page in the sports section.

College football was about to change forever.

A natural progression

It’s difficult to remember a time when college football wasn’t beholden to the networks — a time before Tuesday night MACtion and Thursday night games on ESPN; before fans judged the quality of a game by the quality of the channel it might be played on; a time when a conference’s media rights deal didn’t determine its national reputation or long-term viability.

These things have all become normalized, but television took its inevitable grip of the sport in time, slowly. It didn’t happen all at once. Dean Jordan, now a leading media rights consultant and negotiator who is based in Raleigh, was just finishing college when the Supreme Court ruling arrived in the summer of 1984. If he could remember anything from back then, as it relates to college football, he could remember the variety of games on fall Saturdays.

“Ohio State-Michigan, you’ll see North Carolina-Maryland; James Madison takes on William and Mary — Utah State will play New Mexico,” Jordan said. “And they have all these games, and they were all basically, you know, equal.”

That’s how it was back then, before the ruling. And after?

“It started elevating only the cream of the crop for television,” Jordan said. “And so UNLV and New Mexico and James Madison and William and Mary were no longer on those Saturday schedules anymore.”

That was the earliest and most noticeable effect of the Supreme Court decision in the years that immediately followed — that it “probably accelerated the distinction between the power five and whatever classification is less than that,” Jordan said.

He is now the Managing Executive of Properties at the Wasserman Media Group, which has gained prominence in a college athletics world in which television rights have long been a conference’s most important and valuable asset. Through Wasserman, Jordan helped guide the ACC in its negotiations with ESPN that led to the creation of the ACC Network. He was in the studio in Bristol, Connecticut, and standing next to former ACC Commissioner John Swofford when the ACC Network went live in 2019.

Like just about everything else that has transpired in major college athletics over the past four decades, the ACC Network’s roots grew out of that Supreme Court decision. It became part of a natural evolution, the latest in a long line of dominoes. First, the Court’s ruling helped embolden the dividing line between the haves and have-nots. Then, slowly, conferences broke away from the College Football Association to pursue their own television deals.

The Big Ten and Pac-10, meanwhile, never joined in the first place. Soon enough, in the early 1990s, Notre Dame broke away from the CFA to negotiate its contract with NBC. Eventually the SEC and Big East did the same, and formed a broadcast relationship with CBS. The CFA dissolved not long after, its purpose served. Conferences pursued their own deals. The expansion race began in earnest, after the Big Ten added Penn State and the ACC welcomed Florida State.

“Inventory,” as it relates to teams and games to be sold to television, became part of the popular parlance of college athletics. The wealthiest conferences — the ACC and the SEC, the Big Ten, the Pac-10 and the Big 12 — mostly lived in harmony from the mid-to-late 1990s through the mid-2000s or so.

And then the TV money kept growing. The most powerful schools and leagues, which once banded together to fight the NCAA’s restrictive broadcasting rules, now turned on each other. There was no collective effort to negotiate rights deals on behalf of the sport; only a race among conferences to add the right schools that would earn the most lucrative contract. It became every league for itself; survival of the fittest — or at least those that commanded the highest viewership.

Evolution of a ‘monster’

Back in Oklahoma, Coats still goes to all the Sooners home games, same as he did when he was a boy. His father began taking him when he returned from the war, and after Coats grew up and became a successful attorney, part of his deal when he became the dean of the law school was that Oklahoma would give him season tickets.

The years have rolled by now, and fewer people these days remember Coats for his work on a case whose outcome still resonates in ways large and small. At OU football games — at every big-time football stadium — the legacy of that case is hard to miss. It’s in the size of some of those stadiums, or in their amenities or in the often state-of-the-art football-only facilities nearby. It’s on the sidelines, in the form of multi-million dollar coaching staffs — “I don’t think college coaches have any idea that I’m the one that got them their big salaries,” Coats said — and it’s up in the press box, where a broadcast crew more often than not now calls every game for a national audience.

It’s everywhere, the influence of Coats’ greatest professional triumph.

“Coaches salaries, conference changes and all came about, really, because of the freeing up of the monster of the television money,” he said.

“Monster” is perhaps a fitting word for it, given there are times Coats doesn’t know what to think about a college athletics world he helped create. The TV part of it would’ve happened, eventually, one way or another. He knows that much. It was only a matter of time before schools and conferences wrested control of their media rights, and only a matter of time before TV, with the rise of ESPN and cable, began controlling the sport.

And yet perhaps it could’ve happened differently. Perhaps things like conference alignment “would have been slower to change,” Coats said, if the NCAA hadn’t fought the College Football Association’s efforts to negotiate a TV deal on behalf of its members. For a long time, Oklahoma and Georgia, its co-plaintiff, attempted to negotiate “some kind of reasonable settlement” with the NCAA over TV rights.

“I think that would have been the better path,” Coats said. “(But the) NCAA stands for never compromise anything, any time. We tried a lot to find some way to get to a point but (then-NCAA President) Walter Byers was there, and with Walter, it’s either feast or famine.”

And so there was no settlement, only a thorough defeat for the NCAA and the complete deregulation of college football’s television market. Among the long term consequences, now, is that Oklahoma will soon move to the SEC. In the process, it’ll leave behind Oklahoma State, and its most intense rivalry.

“I hope it stays as one of our out-of-conference games,” said Coats, whose wife graduated from Oklahoma State. They have a “mixed marriage,” he said.

The loss of regional rivalries, or the specter of losing them, is but one of the long term costs of that hard-fought legal victory in 1984. College athletics has become a never-ending arms race — which schools can spend the most on coaches and buildings — and now the most diehard fans have been studying their schools’ television ratings as closely as their incoming recruits, hoping to glean where they fit into an enterprise more and more built on viewership.

The tension now is part of major college sports’ natural evolution, and it was set in motion almost 40 years ago. Now Jim Phillips, ACC Commissioner, faces pressure to close that revenue gap with his league’s peers and boost the ACC’s TV deal; now the Pac-12 and Big 12, both of whom have lost or will lose schools to wealthier leagues, are engaged in a war of perception and Twitter clap-backs, each conference and its followers making the case of why it should absorb the other. And now there’s no shortage of schools wondering if they’ll be next to be left behind.

It takes Coats back to what Justice White, one of the two justices who dissented and ruled in favor of the NCAA, told him 38 years ago: “You may win this case, but you’ll regret it.”

“I don’t think we regret the case,” Coats said, going back in time. “But it unleashed forces — mostly dollar forces, but forces — which have changed the face of college football. And whether that’s for good or real, you can argue about (but) I think that all that’s happened has reduced the competitiveness of college football.”

He has a feeling that maybe things shouldn’t have turned out exactly his way, that perhaps some of these changes have led to more harm than good.

A long time has passed and so much has changed, all with roots 38 years deep. A monster was set loose and “it changed the world,” Coats said. “I’m not sure it changed it for the better.”

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