Sport Journalism Blog

By Alaa Abdeldaiem | @Abdeldaiem_Alaa

Sports Capital Journalism Program

LOS ANGELES –– As the University of Oklahoma and the University of Georgia prepare to meet in Monday afternoon’s Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual, Andrew Coats, Dean Emeritus of the College of Law at Oklahoma, is aware of the headlines surrounding the game’s national appeal.

Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield is a Heisman Trophy winner. Georgia’s Roquan Smith is the recipient of the 33rd Collegiate Butkus Award. Two prestigious programs will come together on a national stage.

Coats has repeatedly delivered the message that Oklahoma and Georgia made an enormous collective impact more than three decades ago.

While the football programs will meet for the first time in the College Football Playoff, Oklahoma and Georgia were instrumental in a lawsuit against the National Collegiate Athletic Association that went to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1984. It’s a case Coats argued before the Supreme Court and now teaches to law classes across the country.

It’s one he refers to as “the most important private enforcement case under antitrust law,” one that “changed the world of sports” by ending the NCAA’s 33-year reign over televising college football by a 7-2 vote.

According to Coats, several other schools were presented with the chance to sue the association. Only Oklahoma and Georgia, he said, were “courageous enough” to step forward.

“People from Nebraska and Texas and other places said they would help the cause and support it but wouldn’t allow the use of their names,” Coats said. “Georgia and Oklahoma were the only ones that agreed to stand up and fight the battle.”

Without it, the industry of college football would not have created the exposure that has evolved into a national obsession.

Without it, the Oklahoma and Georgia programs may not be where they are today.

***

Schools were tired of waiting.

For 30 years under the NCAA’s appearance requirements, universities had to abide by a rule that restricted college teams from appearing in televised games more than six times in two years.

Schools were also not permitted to negotiate television rights on their own, and because of the NCAA’s constraints, bigger schools were unable to grow their exposure and, in turn, generate more income for their universities’ athletic programs.

Looking for a free market, the 63 universities constituting the College Football Association banded together and negotiated their own four-year television contract with NBC.

It was a move that would leave Chuck Neinas fighting on behalf of the CFA for two years.

“The NCAA, without a hearing, stated that any members of the CFA who moved to implement the contract would have all of their teams, men and women, ineligible for postseason competition,” the former CFA executive director said. “But the colleges didn’t know that the television rights to the institutions football team were the property of the institution and not the NCAA.”

Wanting to defend the universities’ rights, Neinas looked for schools to serve as plaintiffs in the antitrust lawsuit. Fred Davison, then President of the University of Georgia who was also serving as the first CFA chairman, volunteered his institution.

Georgia’s then-football coach and athletic director Vince Dooley was hestitant, however.

“The NCAA’s idea was that if this case opened it up like that, it would dilute the attendance,” Dooley told USA Today Sports. “And there were athletic directors––and I was, too—concerned that this might happen.”

Dooley ultimately decided more exposure was better, however, and Georgia signed on. Oklahoma followed shortly after.

On Sept. 8, 1981, the case was officially filed.

One year later, Coats, one of the leading trial lawyers in Oklahoma, represented the universities in an Oklahoma City Federal District Court.

“The Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma called and said that they had voted to ask me to undertake representation of the CFA and the two universities,” Coats said. “A lot of schools wanted this so there was a lot of interest, and I knew this trial might be of great importance down the road.”

But Coats didn’t realize how long that road would be. Judge Juan Burciaga––who was assigned to the case after local judges recused themselves as alumni from the University of Oklahoma––ruled in favor of the Board of Regents and declared the NCAA’s restrictions as a violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act.

Coats believed the decision would put the case to rest.

He was wrong.

“We learned that the NCAA actually stood for ‘Never Compromise Anything Anytime,’” Coats said. “We tried to settle three times with them and talk about some kind of agreement, but they never would.”

The NCAA had made its case clear.

This battle was only beginning.

***

Chuck Neinas remembers the note as if he received it just yesterday.

Notre Dame and Michigan State were two of the top teams in the country, and in November, 1966 the schools were going to meet in one of the most anticipated games of the decade. But some sections of the country wouldn’t get to see it due to the NCAA’s controlled television arrangement.

Alabama head coach Paul “Bear” Bryant was one of those people.

“The plan only allowed so many national games with the idea that there should be more regional games, and so this is the game of the year that season, but it was a regional because all of the national appearances had been used,” Neinas said. “So I get a handwritten note from … Bryant and he said, ‘Chuck, can’t you do something so people in Alabama can see this game? Couldn’t they put the other game on delay and let us see it live?’ And of course, they wouldn’t do it.”

When the NCAA appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit in May 1983 and the battle for television rights was prolonged, Neinas used the note as a reminder as to why this case was worth fighting.

“It wasn’t fair to have one game a week in your area and for it to be a game you had no interest in,” Neinas said. “This was so important in the fight and why it felt important to be a part of it.”

Judge Burciaga’s decision was upheld. The NCAA once again decided to appeal, this time to the Supreme Court. When the case was accepted in 1984, Coats was both shocked and slightly concerned.

“I really thought the U.S. Court of Appeals was where it would finally end, because the Supreme Court takes very few cases under these circumstances,” Coats said. “But there was enough interest in this that they decided to take it, and you fear that they might overrule it, otherwise they wouldn’t even take the case.”

The NCAA argued that its television plan “can have no significant anticompetitive effect since the record indicates that it has no market power” since its programming was only one form of television entertainment, according to court documents.

The NCAA also argued that an increased number of televised games would result in a decreased rate of live attendance and that an open market would cause few college football programs to survive.

The Supreme Court rejected both defenses, and on June 27, 1984, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote the majority opinion that shook the foundations of sport.

“By curtailing output and blunting the ability of member institutions to respond to consumer preference,” Justice Stevens wrote, “the NCAA has restricted rather than enhanced the place of intercollegiate athletics in the Nation’s life.”

“There was a great deal of satisfaction in getting that ruling,” Coats said. “I thought we handled the case well, and I thought the Supreme Court had come to the right answer. We knew the NCAA couldn’t keep doing what it was doing.”

***

While television revenues initially went down as a direct result of the Supreme Court ruling, it wasn’t long until the ability of universities, through their conferences, to control their own television rights began shaping a more lucrative era of college football.

In 1991, Notre Dame left the CFA and agreed to a $38 million contract with NBC. In 1994, the Southeastern Conference entered into a five-year deal with CBS that was worth about $100 million, according to The New York Times.

And that was only the start. Since then, salaries for coaches have skyrocketed. Universities have changed conferences. Networks were branded for conferences. The road was paved for the emergence of the Bowl Championship Series from 1998 to 2013 before it was replaced by the College Football Playoff in 2014.

A USA Today annual list of public Division I program finances had Oklahoma ranked No. 6 in athletic-related generated revenue in 2015-2016 with $150,373,216. Georgia was ranked at No. 15 at $123,841,268.

Just last year, Oklahoma’s Big 12 Conference was awarded over $61 million in revenue distribution from the College Football Playoff, according to NCAA records on the association’s website. Georgia’s SEC received almost $72 million.

“We knew there was a chance this could happen, but I think the amount of money that is now involved in college football was not anticipated in the 1980s,” Neinas said. “Now under this new landscape, the game has picked up more interest nationally, maybe even No. 2 after the NFL, and especially with the CFP. In my opinion, it would have been a lot more difficult to achieve that without winning this suit.”

Neinas acknowledges the ruling has produced challenges, however. When writing his dissenting opinion, the late Supreme Court Justice Byron White, who had been known as Whizzer during his days as an All-America football player at the University of Colorado, predicted that the NCAA would struggle to protect its amateurism as a result, leading to the argument that players should be paid for the association’s use of their names, images and likenesses.

“By mitigating what appears to be a clear failure of the free market to serve the ends and goals of higher education,” White wrote, “the NCAA ensures the continued availability of a unique and valuable product, the very existence of which might well be threatened by unbridled competition in the economic sphere.”

Coats acknowledges that the issue of maintaining the game’s amateurism is a legitimate concern, one that continues to exist decades after the decision was made.

“I can see how this was something the NCAA and others were concerned about, how salaries have gone out of control and the game of football has taken on a much larger role in the educational process than it should,” Coats said. “It’s almost lost its amateurism. It’s become such a huge business.”

That is because Oklahoma and Georgia, together, decided to pursue that challenge.