Game Changer: The Man Who Believes His Supreme Court Victory Has Upended College Football

Reflecting on the groundbreaking case he successfully argued in 1984, attorney Andrew Coats now expresses remorse. His persuasive efforts before the Supreme Court paved the way for universities to maximize their football revenue, ultimately resulting in today’s widespread transformation, and Coats looks back with a sense of regret.

Steve Sewell of Oklahoma in Action Against Texas in Dallas on October 13, 1984 - Heinz Kluetmeier / Sports Illustrated via Getty Images File

By David K. Li

As a college sports conference with a century of history teeters on the brink of extinction and student-athletes prepare for grueling cross-country journeys, the attorney who arguably set these profound changes in motion now expresses significant discontent.

Andrew Coats, the lawyer who successfully persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court in 1984 to permit universities to maximize their football revenue, thereby initiating a television-centric financial frenzy and the extensive upheaval seen today, looks back with a deep sense of remorse regarding the landmark case he championed.

“I believe I had a detrimental impact on college football across the entire spectrum, because I believe this case was the catalyst,” Coats recently shared with NBC News, reflecting on his role in NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma.

The highest court in the United States ruled in favor of Coats’ clients, affirming that the governing body of intercollegiate athletics couldn’t restrict the trade rights of schools and their respective conferences.

Consequently, the once-steady landscape of college football has evolved into an incessant whirlwind of change, with universities perpetually shifting their conference affiliations in pursuit of more lucrative television contracts. This has led to the near dissolution of the 108-year-old Pac-12 conference, which will soon comprise just four schools, if not entirely disappear.

These monumental deals have propelled the value of televised college football games to new heights in recent decades, often to the detriment of student-athletes who, in various sports, routinely traverse thousands of miles for what were once conveniently accessible games reachable by short plane rides or bus trips.

A ‘complete disaster’

Earlier this week, Notre Dame’s Athletic Director, Jack Swarbrick, characterized the conference realignment as a “complete disaster.”

He expressed his concerns on “The Dan Patrick Show” last Wednesday, saying, “I believe that the decision-making process has lost sight of its focus on the student-athlete and what is ultimately in their best interest. I am a strong advocate for adopting more regional scheduling, as it seems to be a highly sensible approach.”

While the 1984 court case primarily revolved around televised football, its practical repercussions have extended to all athletic programs. Athletes in non-revenue and Olympic sports often shoulder an equal or sometimes greater burden of extensive travel.

One such athlete, Paige Sinicki, a softball player at Oregon, recently voiced her unease with the new reality of conference games taking her as far as New Jersey. This cross-country travel was not what she had anticipated when committing to play for the Ducks. She expressed her disappointment on social media, stating, “I chose to compete in a high-level softball conference where being close to home would allow my parents to attend my games. It’s disheartening to learn that in my senior year, I’ll be competing as far away as New Jersey, including games against other East Coast schools.”

She further conveyed her hope that student-athletes like her would receive proper support to cope with the challenges of extensive travel, time zone changes, and long hours on the road.

Ben Westfall, the announcer for Marshall University’s soccer, volleyball, baseball, and softball teams, emphasized that decision-makers need to give more thought to athletes in non-revenue sports who bear the brunt of these lengthy journeys. Marshall University is set to embark on its first academic year in the Sun Belt Conference, an organization based in New Orleans that has now expanded its reach all the way west to San Marcos, Texas.

“This goes beyond monetary considerations, and the consequences of this realignment are not limited to football and basketball,” Westfall expressed on social media. “Everyone is affected, particularly the athletes. It’s disheartening to witness the direction college athletics is taking.”

This shift towards a money-driven approach was paved by Coats and his clients, resulting in round-the-clock football on television and the destabilization of conferences.

‘Annihilated the idea of geography

Practically every game within the highest tier of college football, known as the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), is now either streamed online or broadcasted on national or regional television.

The 2023-24 FBS season commences this Saturday as Navy goes head-to-head with Notre Dame in a match scheduled to air at 2:30 p.m. EDT on NBC, with the game taking place in Dublin.

On a typical autumn Saturday, devoted college football enthusiasts can comfortably settle onto their couches to witness a Big Ten game beginning at noon ET and remain firmly ensconced there, armed with a remote control in one hand and a refreshing drink in the other, until the final West Coast match or a game involving Hawaii concludes, often extending into the early hours of Sunday.

By subscribing to the appropriate cable or satellite packages and leveraging streaming services, it becomes feasible to access and watch more than 100 games each and every Saturday throughout the fall season.

However, prior to the landmark NCAA v. Board of Regents case, only a scant few college football games were televised, typically limited to the most significant annual matchups such as Michigan-Ohio State, USC-UCLA, Texas-Oklahoma, and Army-Navy.

“When this case was decided, it revolutionized the landscape,” remarked Robert Thompson, a professor at Syracuse University and an expert in television history. “It shifted the paradigm from airing just one game per week to eventually broadcasting nearly all games, erasing geographical boundaries in the process.”

Television networks, motivated by substantial financial investments, now prioritize showcasing the most prominent names in college football, regardless of their location. This shift has prompted a series of conference realignments aimed at maximizing market appeal, resulting in a landscape that bewilders even the most seasoned mapmakers.

A new reality

The most significant upheaval occurred 13 months ago, with the announcement that USC and UCLA, both located in Los Angeles, would be joining the Big Ten, a conference presently consisting of 14 schools (soon to be 18) and headquartered in Rosemont, Illinois, starting in the 2024-25 season.

Bigger Ten

Originally comprising mostly Midwestern schools, the Big Ten Conference, soon expanding to eighteen members, has now extended its reach to both the East and West coasts.

The departures of USC and UCLA proved to be pivotal moves that appear to have brought about the downfall of the century-old Pac-12 conference. Oregon and Washington are set to join their Los Angeles counterparts in the Big Ten for the 2024-25 season. Earlier this summer, Arizona, Arizona State, Utah, and Colorado also declared their departure from the Pac-12, with plans to join the Big 12 in a year.

This exodus leaves the remaining four Pac-12 schools—California, Stanford, Washington State, and Oregon State—in a state of uncertainty, as their long-standing conference, which originated in 1915 as the Pacific Coast Conference with founding members Cal, Washington, Oregon, and what was then Oregon Agricultural College (now Oregon State), appears to be on the brink of dissolution.

For college sports enthusiasts, this new reality will be quite a shock. USC may soon find itself frequently competing against Penn State in various sports, while encounters with Stanford become increasingly rare. Additionally, legendary rivalries like Oklahoma versus Oklahoma State could be consigned to the annals of history.

Reflecting on these developments, 88-year-old Coats, who still imparts legal knowledge at his alma mater, the University of Oklahoma, and served as the mayor of Oklahoma City from 1983 to 1987, expressed a sense of regret for how far-reaching these changes have become. He noted that his side, which included co-litigants from the University of Georgia, initially sought an out-of-court settlement with the NCAA, which would have maintained TV negotiation authority with the central body overseeing college sports. However, once the Supreme Court rendered its decision, the power to make lucrative decisions shifted to the individual conferences and schools, paving the way for the dramatic transformations now unfolding.

It is sad what college athletics is turning into.

“At every stage, we made sincere efforts to reach some form of agreement, to mitigate the extent of the impending changes. Regrettably, we discovered that ‘NCAA’ stood for ‘Never Compromise Anything at Anytime,’ and they flatly refused to engage in any dialogue,” Coats lamented.

The NCAA did not respond to NBC News’ request for comment when contacted on Friday.

Even if the legal action initiated by Oklahoma and Georgia had not succeeded, according to Robert Thompson, the Syracuse University professor, the push for more high-profile, cross-conference matchups was an inevitable trajectory.

“I’ll concede to his (Coats’) assertion that by arguing and winning that case, he disrupted college football,” Thompson quipped. “However, I’d also argue that if he hadn’t been the one to disrupt it, there were numerous other individuals eager to step in and do the same.”

Denis Crawford, a historian at the College Football Hall of Fame, concurred that the sport has always been destined to evolve, irrespective of the governing powers.

“When you examine the rich history of college football, you’ll notice a continual process of transformation,” Crawford observed. “Change is an inherent part of the sport, and whether one perceives it as positive or negative, the ultimate judgment lies with the individual consumer.”

In 1984, the court ruled 7-2 in favor of Oklahoma and Georgia, with dissents from Justices Byron “Whizzer” White and William Rehnquist.

Coats vividly recalled an encounter with White, himself a former college football standout at Colorado, at a social event several months after the verdict. White left him with a prophetic statement, saying, “Andy, you may have won that case, but you’ll come to regret it.”

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