In the midst of an uncertain fate for a century-old college sports conference and student-athletes bracing for extensive cross-country travels, the attorney arguably accountable for these significant shifts expresses his dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs.
Andrew Coats, the legal mind who convinced the U.S. Supreme Court in 1984 to permit universities to maximize football revenue, leading to a television-driven financial rush and the far-reaching changes seen today, now reflects with regret on the pivotal case he successfully argued.
Coats recently shared with NBC News, “I believe I inadvertently disrupted college football on a wide scale, as the case seems to have done.” He was reflecting on his role in the landmark case of NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma.
The highest court in the United States sided with Coats’ clients, asserting that the governing body of intercollegiate athletics could not impede the trade rights of schools and their associated conferences.
Presently, the once-stable landscape of college football has evolved into a constant exchange, with universities continuously altering their conference affiliations in pursuit of more lucrative television contracts. This transformation has led to the imminent reduction and potential dissolution of the 108-year-old Pac-12 conference, leaving it with just four member schools.
These substantial deals have driven the value of televised college football games to surge in recent decades, often at the expense of student-athletes who, across all sports, now routinely traverse thousands of miles for routine games that were once easily accessible by short plane rides or bus trips.
A “Disastrous” State of Affairs
Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick recently labeled the conference shifts as a “complete disaster.” He expressed his belief that decision-making has lost sight of its focus on the student-athlete’s well-being and what is truly in their best interest. Swarbrick advocates for more regional scheduling, which he considers a logical approach.
While the 1984 case primarily concerned televised football, its practical consequences have impacted all athletic programs. Athletes in non-revenue and Olympic sports bear a comparable, if not heavier, burden of extended travel.
Paige Sinicki, a softball player from Oregon, voiced her unease with the new reality of traveling to conference games as far away as New Jersey, a journey that she did not anticipate when committing to play for the Ducks.
Ben Westfall, the announcer for Marshall University’s soccer, volleyball, baseball, and softball teams, pointed out that decision-makers seem to overlook the impact on athletes in non-revenue sports, who bear the brunt of extensive travel.
Marshall University, for instance, is entering its first academic year in the Sun Belt Conference, which now spans from New Orleans to San Marcos, Texas.
Westfall noted, “This goes beyond mere finances; this realignment affects everyone, particularly the athletes. The state of college athletics is disheartening.”
The Currency of Money
This trend driven by financial considerations was initiated by Coats and his clients, ushering in a wave of non-stop football on television and conference instability.
Almost every game in the highest tier of college football, the Football Bowl Subdivision, is either streamed or broadcast on national or regional television. The 2023-24 FBS season begins with Navy facing Notre Dame in a match televised on NBC from Dublin.
On a typical fall Saturday, a college football enthusiast can tune in to watch games throughout the day until the final West Coast or Hawaii game concludes in the early hours of Sunday. Thanks to cable, satellite packages, and streaming services, viewers can access over 100 games on any given autumn Saturday.
However, prior to NCAA v. Board of Regents, only a handful of games were televised, with only the most prominent annual matchups making it onto the screen.
Robert Thompson, a professor at Syracuse University specializing in television history, noted that the case’s impact was transformative. He remarked, “The ruling opened up the floodgates. It shifted from one game per week to nearly all games being televised, erasing geographical constraints.”
Television networks, driven by substantial funding, now prioritize showcasing well-known college football teams regardless of their location. This approach has led to a series of conference realignments aimed at maximizing marketability but resulting in geographic confusion.
A New Reality
A significant shift was announced over a year ago when USC and UCLA, both located in Los Angeles, declared their intention to join the Big Ten conference based in Rosemont, Illinois. This move triggered a chain reaction, leading to the potential collapse of the century-old Pac-12 conference, as Oregon and Washington followed suit and joined the Big Ten. Other schools also announced their departure from the Pac-12 to join the Big 12.
With this shifting landscape, college sports fans are confronted with the idea that USC might frequently face Penn State while rarely competing against Stanford. Iconic rivalries such as Oklahoma-Oklahoma State may also fade into history.
Coats, now 88 years old, shared his sentiments on the matter. Despite his victory in the case, he laments, “You can’t help but feel regret for how far it has gone. Nonetheless, it’s difficult to imagine anyone could have predicted the extent of these consequences.”
Coats revealed that his side, including co-litigants from the University of Georgia, initially sought an out-of-court settlement with the NCAA, which would have retained TV negotiation power within the central college sports authority. However, the Supreme Court’s ruling shifted significant decision-making authority to conferences and schools, resulting in the current tumultuous landscape.
The NCAA declined to comment on the matter to NBC News.
Even if the legal action hadn’t taken place, Robert Thompson acknowledged that the drive for high-profile, cross-conference matchups was inevitable. He stated, “I agree with Coats’ assertion that by arguing and winning that case, he unintentionally disrupted college football. Yet, I would also argue that even if he hadn’t been involved, there were plenty of other individuals waiting in line to do the same.”
Denis Crawford, a historian from the College Football Hall of Fame, noted that change is a constant in college football, driven by its inherent evolution. He remarked, “If you observe the history of college football, you’ll find that it has always been evolving. Change is bound to continue, and whether one views it as positive or negative is a matter of personal perspective.”
In 1984, the court ruled 7-2 in favor of Oklahoma and Georgia, with Justices Byron “Whizzer” White and William Rehnquist dissenting.
Coats recalled an encounter with Justice White, a former college football star, who cautioned him about the consequences of his victory, saying, “You may have won that case, but you’ll come to regret it.”