Fear Came for College Football: NCAA's TV Takeover Created Conditions for Conference Re-Alignment
By Mark Schipper
Within the next four years, whenever the universities of Texas and Oklahoma are allowed to fly from the Big 12 and parachute into the Southeastern Conference on a mission for more money and a bigger stage to play on, they’re going to leave their old league in the business version of a bombed out country after the war.
The transplanting of the Sooners and Longhorns to the SEC also 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, but the conditions for revolution will remain ripe into the foreseeable future.
This, at its heart, is a story about the power of fear, which can overpower the sense of reason and cause men, even the bright and dependable ones, to act irrationally. More precisely, this is about the birth of fear in college football, which has shifted along a one-hundred-eighty degree axis from a fear of television's unique power to undermine the game, to a more-intense fear of missing out on the wealth television provides major-football playing universities. Ironically, it would end up being the revenue streams that worked into the sport like water into concrete, weakening the structure until it finally cracked across the entire facade.
Television has been both the philosophical underwriter and filthy-rich financier behind every major change in modern college football. This loaded relationship, what author Keith Dunnavant called The Fifty Year Seduction in his book of the same title, goes back to 1951 and the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s brazen TV power grab. That successful coup, which stripped from individual schools the right to sign television deals, placing the power instead into the hands of the NCAA to control in perpetuity, changed college football forever. Incredibly, the job was carried off at the lowest moment in the organization’s history, like the Soviet Union being handed West-Berlin the day before the first sledgehammer smashed into the Berlin Wall.
The embarrassing failure of the so-called Sanity Code, the first attempt to establish uniform athletic-eligibility rules across the entire country, just one year earlier had gelded the organization. During that incident seven NCAA member schools had admitted to subverting the code to accommodate athletic interests at their universities. The harsh penalty for running afoul of the new order had been set beforehand: Expulsion from the organization.
But rather than voting out the schools, as the code's mandatory minimums required, the rest of the membership, likely ruminating on their own crimes and misdemeanors, 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. The code died and so did the NCAA's ambition of becoming a powerful central ruling body. At least that was the obituary the newspapers printed.
But after hitting rock bottom as a centralized authority, and retiring from the field to consider a new approach, the NCAA had the television crisis land on its desk out of the clear blue sky. Over several chaotic months the crisis became 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, as Dunnavant called it, 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 had not.
This open pipeline between TV and 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. Connecting the sport to national television ignited 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 today how welded together college football and television are, it borders on the surreal to discover in 1951 there was a fear of television that triggered a stampede amongst schools to escape it. After several years of what turned out to be a temporary dip in game attendance, a widespread panic about television’s role set the herd in motion. In a state of general confusion about the new picture box glowing in the corner of the living room, the NCAA's schools voluntarily signed away a right to Home Rule they’d enjoyed since the association was founded in 1905.
By a vote of 161-7 they agreed to ban the signing of live television contracts for individual schools, turning over the power to forge TV contracts to the NCAA. The initial plan was for the association to conduct a series of experiments to better understand TV's effect on ticket sales. In an era when stadium gate was the bedrock of athletic revenue, losing ticket buyers to TV could have been cataclysmic.
But the agreement turned out to be the most violent direction change in the history of collegiate athletics to that point. At its inception forty-six-years earlier the association had been designated a debating and advisory body, with absolutely no legislative or enforcement function in collegiate athletics. And that was how it worked right up until the implementation and immediate failure of the Sanity Code, when it reverted back to Home Rule. The schools and conferences determined how they would do business amongst themselves. After nearly half-a-century on the sideline, the NCAA suddenly 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 and former Pac-8 chairman Tom Hamilton many years after the fact.
Hamilton had been an All-American halfback and star on the Naval Academy's 1926 national title team. During World War II he was top aide to Admiral Bull Halsey and commanding officer on the USS Enterprise, a legendary aircraft carrier that played a crucial role in winning the war in the Pacific. But even Hamilton, who'd survived the hairiest sea battles in human history, was spooked by his colleagues’ fear of television. He was talked into using his massive prestige to speak in favor of the TV ban at the NCAA convention in Dallas prior to the 1951 season.
But there were several problems with the direction the NCAA was headed on TV, including the fact that no one had any idea why attendance had dipped in the first place, or any real reason to scapegoat television. Two other obstacles to the plan could be found in the universities of Pennsylvania and Notre Dame, who were comfortable with television and in the process of re-upping contracts they had negotiated for the '51 season.
According to Walter Byers, the first executive director of the newly powerful NCAA, and the man who negotiated TV contracts for the next thirty years, the membership was upset that Penn and Notre Dame had their own deals. The anxiety came from the belief the big schools would profit from TV at the expense of 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 smaller ones proved legitimate, but that likely was inevitable under any set of rules. On the other hand it is hard to imagine a group of highly-educated people being more wrong than colleges were about television undercutting their football revenue. What they failed to forecast was how TV could be made to pay for all those lost tickets, far beyond any fifty stadium gates, should people stop going to the games. They also failed to imagine how television, in the way it showcased the immense 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 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 the sport's major ally. 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 sell its own football product. Penn, Murray made clear, was not on board with the so-called TV experiment.
The Quakers in 1951 were a quality football program. As the Ivy League schools faded into football history, Penn not only sold out 60,000 seat Franklin Field in Philadelphia, they'd televised their home schedule for almost a decade, first on DuMont, then ABC. Penn was dominating Ivy 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 abused in public by their blue-blooded brothers at Yale, Harvard, and Princeton, who accused Penn of being middle-class and football obsessed.
“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 retired.
Penn split its TV money with every opponent 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, 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 on a strongly felt 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 one day. He 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, 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 an abject fear of television had spread through its membership like a virus, was based on a claim that Penn was exploiting a vacuum within the association to get rich. The NCAA said its TV experiment had been decided by a majority vote and the Quakers were defying the plan for personal 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 upcoming 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 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 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 have 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 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 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 recommend the most-profitable matchups over the course of a 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 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 make contact with the Department of Justice. While Notre Dame did its best not to stir up resentment, the university quietly continued fighting alongside Penn for Home Rule.
Notre Dame’s lawyers immediately concluded 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, the NCAA, 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, stating any decision would take years to get back and 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 next move, Penn was 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 contract for 1951 due to the NCAA's mandate.
When Penn bowed out Notre Dame saw 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 managed to ride a wave of fear and dominate a high-stakes negotiation just as their authority seemed to be bleeding out. Without any traditional, statutory, or legal rights to strip schools of their television autonomy, the NCAA took its member vote at face value and seized 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 shredded the association's business model in 1984 on anti-trust grounds, just as Notre Dame and Penn had claimed all along.
Byers, who in 1951 was serving his opening year as the NCAA’s first real executive, 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 became 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 how to take TV controls 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 from multiple Big Ten schedules, including Michigan, and denied league membership 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, and cocktails, and good cheer amongst friends after an NCAA TV Committee meeting in 1952. This was shortly after the association’s by-laws were changed to grant the NCAA power to negotiate TV deals 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 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, met Romney in a hearty bon homie. Sure, Crisler said, it’s important to protect this national game of ours. Let’s get everyone a shot at this TV business. There can be no harm in that.
It was toasted and decided on right there amongst chums.
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 Fighting Irish had been benched.
The NCAA during the 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. The Fighting Irish never stopped believing the NCAA was exercising illegitimate power over the sport, while the NCAA believed Notre Dame considered itself too good for the association.
For many years college football was covered best 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 proved 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 strange enemy close at all times.
Arledge vindicated Notre Dame's suspicions in his autobiography, published many years after the original players had retired or died, when he described how Byers developed a method for ostracizing the Fighting Irish 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,” Arledge wrote.
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 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 TV rights from its member schools. Channeling the spirit of the great Crisler, the NCAA claimed its interference in, and domination of, the TV marketplace was necessary to maintain a competitive balance in college football. The CFA and its lawyers argued simply that their broadcast property rights belonged to the schools, period. It was a battle between a philosophical belief in what amateurism should be from the NCAA, and cold-hard legal rights on behalf of the CFA.
The Supreme Court sided with the CFA 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 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 vindicated. The NCAA didn't have the right to take TV from 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 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 profitable 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.