You may find this hard to believe.
The opportunistic disassembly of the Pac-12 and the cannibalization of college athletics — it all can be traced to the NCAA’s failure to act with reason and foresight.
Undoubtedly, university presidents and college athletics administrators get their share of the blame, too. They’ve chased a bigger slice of the pie and made a mockery of the notion of acting in the best interests of college athletes, let alone displaying the ideals of sacrifice and putting the group’s interests ahead of their own that college athletics is supposed to promote.
But it started with — again, be prepared to be shocked — the NCAA’s unwillingness to share money and power. Chuck Neinas, a retired college athletics administrator, dared to butt heads with the NCAA as the leader of an entity known as the College Football Association.
“You know what NCAA stands for?” Neinas asked. “No Compromise, Anytime, Anyplace.”
Here’s the thrust of it. In 1984, the universities of Oklahoma and Georgia won a U.S. Supreme Court case against the NCAA that found the NCAA had violated the Sherman Act for unreasonably restraining trade. To that point, the NCAA was the sole bargaining agent for college football with TV networks.
The NCAA limited broadcasts to one or two games per week out of fear that an increase of televised games would depress ticket sales. It also spread the wealth equally among televised teams, meaning that Oklahoma versus USC could be broadcast nearly nationwide and Appalachian State versus The Citadel in limited markets, and all four schools would receive the same revenues — which actually happened in 1981, as Neinas testified in federal court in 1982.
“The NCAA said it was a regional telecast, and they all got the same money,” Neinas said in an interview this week with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The victory for Georgia, Oklahoma and all major college football teams led to the predictable. After losing in the Supreme Court, the NCAA tried to partner with the FBS (then known as Division I-A) schools on a TV contract to replace the one that it had already made with CBS, ABC and ESPN but that the Supreme Court had nullified. But, having lost leverage and gained animosity, the NCAA was turned down in a vote of Division I-A schools.
No later than the next day, the Big Ten and Pac-10, which to that point had not been part of the CFA, decided to stay that way and make their own TV deal.
“Combined, we already saturate 40% of the television market,” then-Big Ten commissioner Wayne Duke told the Associated Press.
The genie was out of the bottle. In time, Notre Dame left the CFA to strike its own deal with NBC. The Big Ten added Penn State, fortifying its television contract. (This is funny: At the time, there was some resistance on the basis of Penn State’s remote location from the rest of the conference.) The SEC added Arkansas and South Carolina to become a 12-team league, enabling a highly profitable conference championship game.
The Southwest Conference was dissolved after 82 years, the ACC raided the Big East, the Big Ten and SEC launched lucrative networks, the Big Ten spread coast to coast and finally the Pac-12 was ransacked. All along, coaches’ and administrators’ salaries skyrocketed and the size of athletic departments mushroomed.
There is a telling sentence from a New York Times story in 1984 after the Supreme Court decision about Notre Dame professing to be a part of a TV package involving a major-college group: “Notre Dame may earn less money under a group concept, but will do less damage as a whole to college football by staying with a group, (then-Athletic Director Gene Corrigan) said.”
Give credit to the late Corrigan, later to become ACC commissioner. He was right on both accounts. By initially staying with the CFA, Notre Dame took less money and avoided damaging college football as a whole. But that didn’t last. (Corrigan was no longer AD when Notre Dame made its deal with NBC.)
All the fallout of the 1984 Supreme Court case and the love of money. I said to Neinas that it seemed like, once the NCAA lost the case, the ensuing carnage was inevitable.
“Oh, yes,” he replied.
And that’s the thing. The NCAA — “No Compromise, Anytime, Anyplace” — could have found a middle path with the CFA but refused. Andy Coats, a University of Oklahoma law school professor who represented Oklahoma and Georgia, said that his side tried to negotiate with the NCAA but was turned down. Before the ruling, the schools had plenty to lose and surely would have been willing to listen. The NCAA, not so much.
“I think that was what our people kind of thought might be the right way to go about it,” Coats told the AJC this week. “But (then-NCAA executive director) Walter Byers, who I loved and was a tough, smart guy — who had been really the guy that picked the NCAA up on his shoulders — just hated the idea that they weren’t absolutely in control of everything.”
The NCAA and the major-football schools could have entered into a revenue-sharing plan. With the money even across the board, there would have been no need for a school to jump conferences.
“Exactly,” Coats said. “There’d be no motivation for them to change.”
Perhaps a playoff could have been instituted earlier, a venture that would have been highly profitable and could have kept members aligned. “That was our hope, really,” Coats said.
Even as the lawsuit went to trial, with the NCAA losing in a federal district court, then a court of appeals and finally the Supreme Court, Coats said he thought the NCAA would consider settling.
“I really thought there was some happy medium somewhere in there, if that’s the proper phrase, and there just never was,” he said.
Who knows — maybe college administrators would have found a way to mess it up eventually anyway. After all, the CFA fell apart when the SEC left the group. (For his part, Neinas said that, once the CFA struck its big contract with NBC and the NCAA threatened sanctions, there was no longer any possibility of a compromise.)
And perhaps the path of compromise would have encountered its own problems. “We may have ultimately gotten to where we are, but I think it would have been much gentler,” Coats said.
But the NCAA’s unwillingness to unclench its fists prevented any chance of finding out. Decades later, the NCAA failed to learn its lesson. As the demands for athletes to be compensated grew — particularly in the face of the millions that their coaches were receiving, thanks to the big TV contracts — the NCAA wouldn’t listen.
In 2021, the NCAA lost again in the Supreme Court, this time to current and former college football and basketball players. The court found that, by putting a cap on the education-related benefits that schools can offer to athletes, the NCAA was in violation of the same Sherman Act that it was found guilty of breaching in its 1984 case. (Ironically, after first suing the NCAA for limiting their right to be compensated, universities took the other side of the argument against athletes.)
Again, the NCAA had opportunities to create a compromise with athletes in the realm of compensation. But, by failing to do so and ultimately losing, the NCAA is now so out of its depth in finding a solution for the uncontrolled market of name, image and likeness deals that it has sought the help of Congress.
The two biggest issues in college athletics today can find their roots in the NCAA’s lack of foresight and reason. But at least it never compromised.