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The last time Georgia, Oklahoma shared the national stage was in court

Pasadena, Calif. - Georgia and Oklahoma will meet on the gridiron for the first time in history at Monday’s Rose Bowl. But the two schools changed the face of NCAA football the last time they teamed up, winning a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case.

The 7-2 court ruling allowed schools and conferences to forge their own television deals instead of relying on the NCAA to do so. That paved the way for today’s wave of eye-popping TV deals, growing sports conferences and dozens more games on TV every week.

Veteran sportscaster Dave Cohen, the former TV play-by-play voice of the Yankees who now lives in Atlanta, sent a note our way outlining the dynamics:

The issue was over who owned and controlled the rights to televise college football. From the mid 1960s, the NCAA had a contract with ABC that spread TV dollars among all its members while limiting the number of times a team could appear in a national or regional telecast.

The college powers did not like the sharing arrangement or the limitations – six TV appearances in a 2-year period - and so they formed the CFA - College Football Association ... When the CFA negotiated its own TV deal, NCAA threatened them about losing eligibility for all sports if they pursued TV rights deals and the legal battles began. 

Oklahoma was front-and-center in the lawsuit because of a particular affront: The team played Southern Cal in September 1981 in a game televised on ABC in 48 states. The network broadcast the Appalachian State game against The Citadel to just the Carolinas. But all four schools received the same amount of TV revenue.

Georgia got involved in the lawsuit because Fred Davison, the school’s president, was also the head of the College Football Association. And he found common cause with Oklahoma President Bill Banowsky to challenge the NCAA.

It was no small matter, The Oklahoman reported in a retrospective this month. Kent Myers, an Oklahoma attorney who worked on the case, told the newspaper that both schools were threatened with sanctions and wary of punishment from long-time NCAA director Walter Byers.

From the piece:

“Sometimes, when you're going into the hall of horrors on Halloween, you want somebody to hold your hand,” said Meyers said. “We were fearful that we'd be scared to death, from Walter Byers jumping out. Georgia seemed amiable to (suing). ‘We'll do it if you'll do it. OK, we'll do it together.' Some of that mentality.”

The schools won a first round in federal court, and then a federal appeals court backed the decision by a 2-1 vote. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, and the June 1984 ruling in the schools' favor was penned by Justice John Paul Stevens.

He wrote that the NCAA “restricted rather than enhanced the place of intercollegiate athletics in the nation’s life,” and concluded that the NCAA failed to prove why it needed to restrict the TV deals.

Among the two dissents was Justice Byron White, a former Colorado football star who worried it could set off a new arms’ race among college football programs. And he said the law already allowed the NCAA to enforce other limitations, such as the number of scholarships.

In his dissent, he wrote that the NCAA’s mission is “to provide a public good - a viable system of amateur athletics - that most likely could not be provided in a perfectly competitive market.” The TV restrictions, he added, were designed to protect the sport from “unbridled competition in the economic sphere.”

The ruling helped shape the college football world we know today. But what if the NCAA had won the case? Brent Schrotenboer of USA Today explored that possibility in a lengthy analysis earlier this week.

From his USA Today piece:

If the NCAA had won the case instead, its membership eventually would have realized it could make more money by offering more games to more buyers “the way the NFL does today,” former CBS Sports President Neal Pilson told USA TODAY Sports. It just might have come along slower.


The NCAA’s control of college football television was designed in part to get exposure for smaller schools, too, giving them attention and revenue they otherwise wouldn’t get in a free market dominated by the likes of Oklahoma and Georgia.

“One benefit of NCAA control was a bit more equality between large schools and smaller schools, which needed the NCAA revenue to maintain football programs,” said James Ponsoldt, a Georgia law professor who served as counsel in the case against the NCAA. “Now, of course, the major conferences have grown exponentially in terms of budget, so that they are essentially professional.”

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About the Author

Greg Bluestein is a political reporter who covers the governor's office and state politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.