Welcome back to failure to monitor. Last time, we recounted the saga of Jerry Tarkanian, and how the Supreme Court ruled that the NCAA had total control over governing and discipline their member schools. However, in 1984, everything changed.
It’s hard to believe now that we live in a world of streaming and cable TV, but it used to be really hard to watch college football. Only one, maybe two games were on TV every week. This is because the NCAA had full control over the television rights for college sports. They handpicked which games would be broadcast, and they decided how the revenue would be split up between the schools. This was fine back when the sport was in its infancy and primarily a regional sport. People in Mississippi weren’t too upset they couldn’t watch Yale and Dartmouth. But the sport continued to grow over the years, and those televised games started bringing in big time money. In 1977, the schools decided to do something about it. Members of most of the major conferences banded together to form the College Football Association. The director of the CFA then went rogue and began negotiating a TV deal with NBC. The NCAA was in the middle of negotiations with ABC and CBS, so they were understandably upset when they caught wind of these under the table talks. As always, they threatened to sanction every member of the CFA, and not just in football. These sanctions would punish every single sport at these schools, all the way down to women’s rowing. But there was a problem. This time the NCAA cast its net a little too wide. Threatening one school is simple enough, but they were going after 63 different schools. As the saying goes, there’s strength in numbers. For the first time ever, the schools called the league’s bluff. The University of Oklahoma and the University of Georgia filed an injunction in federal court that would prevent the NCAA from punishing any members of the CFA. Once again, the NCAA national office found itself in court fighting its own members.
On September 8th, 1981, the board of regents at Oklahoma and Georgia filed a case in the US District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma. They claimed that the NCAA’s total control over television contracts was a violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. For those who are unaware, this is the law that prevents monopolies and the restraint of free trade in the United States. During the trial, the NCAA unsurprisingly went back to the Tarkanian case. They claimed that the members of the CFA voluntarily agreed to be in the NCAA and were free to leave at any time, so there was no monopoly. This time, the judge didn’t buy it. He ruled that the NCAA was engaged in price fixing and restricting free trade by negotiating every TV deal and limiting the number of games that were televised. The league appealed, of course, but it was rejected. They once again petitioned the United States Supreme Court, which once again accepted it. After hearing the arguments from both sides, the nine justices handed down their verdict. On June 2nd, 1984, the court did the unthinkable. They ruled against the NCAA. By a decision of 7-2, the Supreme Court ruled that the NCAA had violated the Sherman Antitrust Act and that member institutions were free to negotiate their own TV deals. An interesting side note from the case: one of the dissenting judges was William Rehnquist, who argued this would make college football too close to professional sports. He also, unsurprisingly, was a former college football player.
This decision ended up being the most impactful one in the history of college athletics. For the first few decades, the CFA negotiated most of the TV deals for teams outside of the Big Ten and PAC 10. Other conferences split off over the years, with the death blow being the SEC’s departure in 1995. The group officially disbanded in 1997. After that, each of the member schools signed deals collectively with their conference, and the money started to pour in. Not only could they sell more than one game a week, but they also didn’t have to share a dime with anyone else. More than anything else, this is what built college football into the multi-billion-dollar industry that it is today. There was no longer any argument that the NCAA was solely about “character building” and “going pro in something other than sports.” These athletes were clearly worth a lot of money, even if the schools didn’t want to share any of it. Not satisfied with just showing more games on TV, most conferences even started their own networks. The Big Ten started this trend when they launched the creatively titled Big Ten Network in 2007. The PAC 12 followed suit in 2012, even though virtually nobody was able to watch it. The SEC and ACC eventually partnered with Disney to host their own stations. In case all of that didn’t convince you that the NCAA was big business, the University of Texas launched its own network. Just this past year, the SEC signed a $3 billion deal with Disney. You read that right. Billion with a “b”. Without the Supreme Court ruling in favor of the CFA back in 1984, this absurd amount of money wouldn’t be coursing through the veins of college sports like it is today.
Next time, we’ll take a look at how the NCAA attempted to retake control in the wake of this ruling, with what ended up being the most infamous punishment of all time.