Fear Came for College Football: NCAA's TV Takeover Created Conditions for Conference Re-Alignment
By Mark Schipper
Within the next four years, whenever Texas and Oklahoma are legally permitted to leave the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference in pursuit of more money and a bigger stage to play on, they’re going to leave their old league in the sports-business version of a country after losing the war.
The transplanting of the Sooners and Longhorns to the SEC may touch off another nerve-racking round of conference realignments after almost a decade of relative peace. Whether the national scramble into more lucrative television alliances will spiral into a full-scale revolution will take longer to tell.
This is a story about the power of fear, which can overwhelm every sense and cause men who aren't sure of themselves to act irrationally. More directly, this is the story of the birth of that fear in college football, which has turned on a one-hundred-eighty degree axis from a fear of television to a more-intense fear of missing out on the extreme wealth that television can add to the coffers of a university.
Television dollars have been the primary force behind every major change in modern college football. This loaded relationship, what Keith Dunnavant called The Fifty Year Seduction in his book of the same name, goes back to 1951 and the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s brazen TV power grab. That successful power play, which took from individual schools the right to sign television deals and put it instead into the hands of the NCAA, had been carried off at one of the lowest moments in the organization’s history.
The NCAA’s victory came just one year after the embarrassing failure of its so-called Sanity Code, the first attempt to establish uniform athletic-eligibility rules across the country. During that incident seven NCAA member schools had admitted to cheating the code. The penalty was supposed to be expulsion from the organization. But rather than voting out the schools, as the code required, the rest of the membership, likely ruminating on their own crimes, allowed the so-called Sinful Seven to remain members in good standing. This total collapse of the new order during its first real test exposed the association as too impotent to enforce its own central tenant.
But after hitting rock bottom as a central ruling committee, rather than retiring from the field the NCAA had the television crisis land on its desk out of the clear blue sky. Over several months the crisis grew into a high-stakes showdown over the future of college football. To the astonishment of many the NCAA would win the standoff with little more than a flinty-eyed bluff, consequently transforming the association from a hands-off advisory body into a behemoth bureaucracy and enforcement agency. The power over television rights gave the NCAA the authority the Sanity Code could not.
This direct hook up of TV to college football also finished off the transformation of amateur football from a campus pastime into an expensive, coast-to-coast entertainment property, with a financial bottom line foremost amongst those who ran the game. This joining of the sport with national television caused a second Big Boom in college football, creating almost instantly a kind of solar system with the television as the sun, and all of the football-playing universities like planets pulled toward its life-giving glow.
Knowing what television has become today there is a sense of the bizarre in discovering that in 1951 a fear of television touched off the initial terror. After several years of what turned out to be a temporary dip in attendance a widespread panic about television’s role in the lost revenues precipitated the crisis. Full of fear, and in a state of general confusion, the member schools voluntarily signed away a right to Home Rule that they’d enjoyed since the NCAA was founded in 1905.
By a vote of 161-7 the membership agreed to ban live television for individual schools in 1951, turning over the power to sign TV contracts to the NCAA in order that the association could make a study of TV's effect on ticket sales. The immensity of that sudden change cannot be overstated. At its inception forty-six-years earlier the association was designated a strict debating and advisory body, with absolutely no legislative or enforcement function in college athletics. After nearly half-a-century on the sideline the NCAA was on the verge of taking over by way of a football-TV coup.
“There was almost a sense of panic about the process,” said Pittsburgh athletic director Tom Hamilton many years after the fact.
Hamilton had been an All-American halfback and a national star in the 1930s at the Naval Academy. During World War II he was the top aide to Admiral Bull Halsey and commanding officer on the USS Enterprise carrier that played a major role in winning the war in the Pacific. Even Hamilton had been spooked by his colleagues’ fear of television. Hamilton had been talked into using his massive prestige to speak in favor of the ban at the NCAA convention in Dallas prior to that 1951 season.
But there were several fundamental problems with the TV experiment, including the fact that no one had any idea why attendance had dipped in the first place, or any real reason to scapegoat television as the issue. Two other major obstacles involved the universities of Pennsylvania and Notre Dame, who were comfortable with television and in the process of re-upping contracts they had negotiated with the networks for the 1951 season.
According to Walter Byers, the first executive director of the new and powerful NCAA, and the man who negotiated the TV contracts for thirty years, the colleges were upset that Penn and Notre Dame had their own deals. The fear was that the big schools would profit from TV at the expense of the smaller ones, shouldering them off the map as they grew larger, and that the stadium gate, which at that time paid for everything, would disappear.
The fear of major-football schools dominating the smaller ones proved legitimate, but that likely was inevitable under any circumstances. On the other hand it is hard to imagine a group of highly-educated people being more wrong than the colleges were about television. What they did not understand was how TV could be made to pay for all those lost tickets, far beyond any fifty stadium gates. They also failed to imagine how television, in the way it showcased the beautiful pageantry and exciting atmosphere of college games, would grow the audience for college football by tens of millions of people who had never set foot on a college campus.
Francis Murray was Penn’s athletic director when the crisis came. He had been a star halfback in the Quakers’ Dream Backfield of the 1930s and was a popular administrator in his new position. Murray, who had been stunned by what he heard from his colleagues at the 1951 convention, decided to address the assembly after the TV doomsayers had laid out their dark vision for the future.
Murray accused the association of being shortsighted about TV and stated his belief that the new broadcast form could be a major ally for the sport. Murray went further, claiming anti-trust issues could be in play with the NCAA, an advisory body without any legislative power, suddenly stepping in to strip away an individual school’s right to show its games on TV. Penn, Murray made clear, was not on board with the so-called TV experiment.
The Quakers in 1951 were a strong football program. They not only sold out the 60,000 seat Franklin Field in Philadelphia, they had televised their home schedule for almost a decade on DuMont and then ABC. Penn was dominating Ivy League competition at a time when the rest of its membership was stepping back from major football, running up a 45-6-3 record against their traditional rivals and winning three conference championships in the 1940s. The Quakers were openly resented for their success, accused of being middle-class and football obsessed by their blue-blooded brothers at Yale, Harvard, and Princeton.
“Yale considered Penn part of the great unwashed. They thought they were too good for us,” said Jerry Ford, who served as athletic director after Murray.
Penn had split TV money with their opponents and used the rest to cover capital projects. The school owed money on the Palestra, their basketball arena, and had many other bills, both athletic and academic, that the football program had been tapped to cover. Penn was all-in on television and ignored the NCAA’s ban both for practical reasons and even more so on principle.
“They were seizing our property rights,” Murray said. “It was un-American what they were trying to do, and I wasn’t about to take it lying down.”
Harold Stassen was Penn’s President. He had been one of the youngest governors in the history of the country in Minnesota and openly aspired to be president. He had hired Murray to run the athletic department and fully backed him in his television stand.
“Central control is a kind of disease which slips into the minds of men around the world. But it is not the American approach to problems,” Stassen told media.
But when Penn refused to cancel their TV contract with ABC, the NCAA and its membership, led by the Ivy League and backed by powerful football schools from the Midwest to the Deep South, decided to get tough. Penn was formally designated a ‘Member in Bad Standing’ and barred from competing in NCAA championship events.
The NCAA’s power play, which was possible only because of the abject fear of television that spread through its membership like a virus, was based on a claim that Penn was exploiting a vacuum within the association. The NCAA said its TV experiment had been decided by a majority vote and that the Quakers were defying the plan for personal financial gain.
The association took advantage of a push from several heavy hitters, including two national champion coaches in Army’s Red Blaik and Fritz Crisler of Michigan, to convince Penn’s opponents to cancel their games. If the Quakers continued to hold their ground they would lose not just the TV revenue, but an entire season’s worth of tickets sales as well.
Quietly watching this unfold between Penn and the NCAA was Notre Dame. The Irish were the other big-time program with a strong working relationship with TV. Notre Dame had overcome their ambivalence about commercializing their football team in 1949 when they sold their home slate to the DuMont Network. Under their new, incoming president, a 34-year-old work-horse named Father Theodore Hesburgh, Notre Dame was open about their plans to use athletic revenue, including TV money, to cover ambitious plans to build up their university and advertise its educational mission across the country.
The Fighting Irish were comfortable with mass broadcast technology, and had used national radio better than any other program going back to Knute Rockne in the 1920s. Notre Dame knew the ‘free tickets’ offered by TV and radio would not hurt their in-person gate at Notre Dame Stadium.
The Irish also believed that within the Home-Rule principles enshrined in the NCAA, the place of TV on their campus was entirely their decision. It was no different than setting the schedule, or ticket prices, and picking the kind of athletes they were willing to take on in South Bend. Behind that philosophy the Irish signed an exclusive contract with DuMont to broadcast their home games for a third-straight season.
While the Quakers were the target of resentment and jealousy within the Ivy League, Notre Dame felt it across the country as a by-product of their massive success and quasi-mythical brand. Notre Dame’s administrators were aware of the malice they generated, which at times included a heavy dose of anti-Catholic prejudice, and did what they could to play fair while never sacrificing their own potential for profit and growth.
When Penn's president Stassen made it clear the Quakers and Notre Dame were fighting the same fight against the NCAA, he received a letter from a Penn alumnus who accused him of advancing his political ambitions and “courting the Roman Catholics” for a future run at the presidency. It was meant to be a hard-hitting, Ivy League-style insult.
As this storm built within the Association, fomenting terror amongst its membership, Father Hesburgh remained sanguine and philosophical about the place of television. At the 1951 meetings where the fear was palpable, Hesburgh had said to the assembly regarding television that "if it is from God, we can’t stop it. If it is not, it will die of its own accord.”
Notre Dame’s outgoing president, Father John Cavanaugh, called the NCAA’s TV plan “socialistic” and did not want the Fighting Irish involved. In place of the association’s concept, and in an effort to calm the waters, Cavanaugh suggested forming a “Super Conference” for the big football schools. His simple idea was to combine everyone’s drawing power into a group in order to sell it to the television networks, who could then recommend the most-profitable matchups over the course of the season. The schools would draw up rules to govern the new organization, and split revenue at a percentage every member found agreeable.
This concept, which would inform not only the NCAA’s negotiating practice for the next three decades, but every conferences’ policy after the Supreme Court deregulated college-football TV in 1984, found no traction in the panicky atmosphere of 1951 and was dropped almost immediately. Notre Dame had forecast the future, but they were so early the rest of the sport couldn't see it.
The Irish, sensing that the mood was against them, retained an anti-trust lawyer to look into the television plan and to make contact with the Department of Justice. While Notre Dame did its best not to stir up resentment, the university quietly continued to fight for Home Rule alongside Penn.
It did not take long for Notre Dame’s lawyers to determine there was an anti-trust case to be made. Penn’s people agreed with the assessment. The schools’ shared position was that a violation occurred when an outside organization attempted to take control over the inherent right of a university to manage its property, in this case the television broadcast of its teams' Saturday football games.
Penn took the legalese to the NCAA and asked the association to submit their TV plan to the United States Department of Justice and wait for an opinion before proceeding. The association flatly refused to wait for the DOJ to weigh in, stating that any decision would take years to get back and that the membership had approved their plan. The Penn ultimatums were left on the table as the football season approached.
While Notre Dame was playing it cool, waiting for the cards to be dealt, Penn had been dumped out of the frying pan and into the fire. With its reputation smeared as a profiteer and enemy of collegiality, its entire slate of football opponents canceling their games, and its remaining sports unable to compete in NCAA championships, the Quakers folded. They informed ABC they would have to cancel their football contract for 1951 due to the NCAA's new mandate.
When Penn bowed out Notre Dame could see the game was lost and folded its hand as well, informing DuMont their two-year TV relationship was finished, at least for the moment. Notre Dame would not sign another exclusive-TV deal until 1990, thirty-eight years down the line.
Amazingly, the NCAA had managed to surf a wave of intense fear and dominate a high-stakes face-off just as their authority seemed to be bleeding out. Without any traditional, statutory, or legal rights to strip schools of their autonomy to sign commercial contracts, the NCAA took the member vote at face value and assumed control over television for the entire association. The NCAA would jealously guard that power for more than three decades, ceding it only after the Supreme Court ripped it from their hands in 1984 on—you might have guessed it—an anti-trust ruling.
Byers, who in 1951 was serving his opening year as the NCAA’s first full-time executive director, sold the initial TV contract to Westinghouse Electric for almost $680,000 dollars. Westinghouse took the package to NBC, where a slate of carefully chosen games was broadcast in patterns to test viewership against gate attendance for the duration of the season.
Despite highly inconclusive results and dubious testing models, and the continued objections of Penn and Notre Dame, the NCAA schools voted again in 1952, this time 171-8, to leave TV controls with the NCAA. Byers sold the second contract directly to NBC for $1.144 million. It was the beginning of a thirty-two-year run of steeply-escalating TV deals negotiated by the NCAA on behalf of its member institutions.
While Notre Dame and Penn tried to figure out a way to get the television controls away from the NCAA, the NCAA and its good friends, like Crisler at Michigan, were dreaming up their Game of the Week plan. It was a bitter loss for Notre Dame, who had been dropped as an opponent by multiple Big Ten schools, including Michigan, and denied membership to the league on multiple occasions. The Fighting Irish now found its TV policy was being dictated by a cliquey cabal that in many ways was hostile to Notre Dame's interests.
In his memoir of his time leading the NCAA, Byers related a story about a hotel suite, cocktails, and good cheer amongst fine friends after an NCAA TV Committee meeting in 1952. This was shortly after the association’s by-laws had been changed to grant the NCAA power to negotiate TV deals on behalf of its members into perpetuity.
Byers said it was Crisler, in conversation with Utah State head coach E.L. Romney, who invented the NCAA’s tightly restricted Game of the Week format. It was all very chummy. With the ice clinking on whatever round of highballs they’d reached, Romney had said to Crisler: "Fritz, why not make sure all eight NCAA districts get at least one national game each season?"
Crisler, seeing the logic and feeling generous on behalf of his superpower school in Ann Arbor, had met Romney in hearty fellowship. Sure, Crisler said, it’s important to protect this national game of ours. Let’s get everyone a shot at this TV business.
It was toasted on and decided right there.
Crisler’s pledge to Romney set the association’s precedent: Limit television exposure for the strongest while making sure each region got a fair showing to the rest of the country. Frank Leahy, Father Hesburgh, and Notre Dame had not been invited up to the suite for drinks.
The NCAA during the almost four decades of Byers’ leadership, and Notre Dame under the powerful joint leadership of president Hesburgh and athletic director Ned Joyce, never did get along. They were cordial frenemies, full of toothy smiles and tepid well wishes to paper over a deep mistrust and even disdain.
For many years college football was covered in exclusive fashion by the American Broadcasting Company under the leadership of its legendary executive, Roone Arledge. Arledge had a strange, combative, but working relationship with Byers, who turned out to be one of the most eccentric power players in the history of American sport.
Because Byers treated television negotiations like a rolling war, Arledge kept his enemy close. In his own autobiography, Arledge described how Byers developed a method for ostracizing Notre Dame from important decisions:
"Walter organized his favorite athletic directors (meaning everybody except Notre Dame, it sometimes seemed) into committees. And the committees got to go off on junkets to decide the important things, like the next season’s schedule, and television paid handsomely for all of it.”
While Notre Dame submitted to the new order in 1952, and became the all-time leader in television appearances over the course of the program, Penn did not. Cutting off its nose to spite its face, the Quakers refused to participate in the NCAA’s TV program, calling it a walking anti-trust violation.
“The NCAA television control program is regarded by the University of Pennsylvania as illegal and unwise; hence we have not participated in it, and have opposed it,” president Stassen said in a written statement in 1953. “Our opposition has thus far been unsuccessful, but it is believed only a question of time before the centralized control scheme sponsored by the NCAA will be abrogated and all universities and colleges will enjoy the same rights and freedom in this respect that they do in other matters.”
Thirty-years later Stassen’s summation would become the heart of the matter when representatives of the Universities of Georgia and Oklahoma sued the NCAA over TV rights. Acting on behalf of the College Football Association, a consortium of the major-football schools outside of the Big Ten and Pac-10, the so-called Board of Regents vs the NCAA case would go all the way to the Supreme Court.
To the astonishment of almost everyone, the NCAA would argue its case almost exactly as it had in 1951 when it coaxed away the TV rights from its member schools. Channeling the spirit of the great Crisler, the NCAA claimed its interference in, and domination of, the college-football TV marketplace was necessary to maintain a competitive balance in college sports. The CFA and its lawyers argued simply that their broadcast property rights belonged to the schools, period. It became a battle between a philosophical belief in what amateurism should be from the NCAA, and cold, hard legal rights on the side of the CFA.
The Supreme Court sided with the CFA schools and took a flamethrower to the NCAA, describing the organization as a classic cartel that had been illegally interfering in the operation of the free marketplace for decades. The NCAA’s current television contracts, by far the most lucrative and expansive in the history of the association, were immediately made null and void, and the schools were back on their own.
Thirty-two years after the fact Penn’s president Stassen and Notre Dame’s administration had been proved right. The NCAA had not had the right to take TV from the schools no matter how many frightened members of an association voted on it. In the intervening decades Penn had stepped back from major football and joined their Ivy League brothers in a smaller-scale athletics realm. Notre Dame had continued to be Notre Dame and thrived in every era, preserving its status as one of the elite and wealthy brands in college athletics.
But there had been a ruthless selfishness to Penn and Notre Dame that was before its time as well, a self-interest that pointed toward the revolutionary atmosphere in college football today.
The unleashing of television, regardless of the merits, created a new kind of fear. From a long period of autocratic, centralized control the college-football world transformed into a Thunderdome, a landscape where the strongest brands would begin scrambling into the most-lucrative television alliances, ruthlessly destroying programs, conferences, and decades of tradition if it meant fattening their own bottom lines and increasing their power within the sport.
While in 1951 it was fear of television, in 2021 it is fear of missing out—but the panicked stampedes remain much the same. Can college football survive far beyond its 152nd season when everything that made it special is for sale? We are about to find out.