In 1984, attorney Andrew Coats achieved a significant legal victory when he persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court to grant universities the power to maximize football revenue. Little did he know that this landmark case, NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma, would trigger a series of events leading to a seismic transformation in college sports. Today, as the sports world witnesses a century-old college conference teetering on the edge of extinction and student-athletes enduring grueling cross-country travels, Coats reflects on his role in this unfolding drama with deep regret.
The Legal Turning Point
Coats, the lawyer who successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1984, secured a ruling that shattered the NCAA’s ability to restrain trade rights among schools and conferences. This decision laid the foundation for a television-driven revenue explosion and the sweeping changes we witness today.
The Unforeseen Consequences
The once-stable world of college football has morphed into a ceaseless carousel of universities frantically changing conference affiliations in pursuit of lucrative TV contracts. A poignant example is the Pac-12, a 108-year-old conference, dwindling to just four schools and facing possible dissolution.
These multimillion-dollar deals have propelled the value of televised college football games to unprecedented heights, but this growth has come at the expense of student-athletes who now endure extensive cross-country travel for routine games that were once accessible via short flights or bus trips.
A ‘Complete Disaster’
Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick aptly describes the current situation as a “complete disaster.” He believes the decision-making process has lost sight of the well-being of student-athletes, advocating for a return to more regional scheduling.
The Wider Impact
While the 1984 case initially centered on televised football, its practical ramifications have rippled across all college sports programs. Athletes in non-revenue and Olympic sports now shoulder the equal, if not greater, burden of long-distance travel.
Oregon softball player Paige Sinicki’s experience encapsulates the frustrations of student-athletes facing distant conference games. Committing to a high-level softball conference, she never imagined she’d be playing cross-country games in her senior year.
Neglecting Non-Revenue Sports
Marshall University announcer Ben Westfall emphasizes that decision-makers often overlook the challenges faced by athletes in non-revenue sports, who endure grueling travel schedules. Marshall University itself is transitioning to the Sun Belt Conference, stretching from New Orleans to San Marcos, Texas.
A Money-Driven Transformation
The path to this upheaval was paved by Coats and his clients, ushering in an era of round-the-clock football on TV and conference instability.
‘Annihilated the Idea of Geography’
Almost every game in college football’s highest tier, the Football Bowl Subdivision, is now streamed or televised nationally or regionally. This accessibility allows fans to watch over 100 games every autumn Saturday, erasing geographical barriers.
The New Reality
The most significant shift unfolded when USC and UCLA, both located in Los Angeles, announced their move to the Big Ten, triggering a series of changes. Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Arizona State, Utah, and Colorado followed suit, leaving the Pac-12 in jeopardy.
The remaining Pac-12 schools, including California, Stanford, Washington State, and Oregon State, now face an uncertain future. The century-old conference appears to be on the brink of extinction.
Andrew Coats, now 88, reflects on his role in this transformation with mixed feelings. He and his co-litigants had initially sought an out-of-court settlement with the NCAA to preserve central authority in TV negotiations. However, the Supreme Court’s ruling shifted decision-making power to conferences and schools, catalyzing the current upheaval.
Conclusion: A Sport in Flux
In the end, college football’s evolution is a complex process. Coats’ legal victory reshaped the landscape, but it’s a reminder that decisions, even with the best intentions, can have far-reaching and unpredictable consequences. College sports continue to evolve, leaving some nostalgic for the past while others anticipate a new era. Regardless, it’s the fans and athletes who will ultimately shape the future of college athletics.