Amidst the brink of extinction for a century-old college sports conference and the anticipation of arduous cross-country voyages for student-athletes, the lawyer arguably responsible for these profound transformations expresses his discontent.
Andrew Coats, the legal advocate who successfully persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court in 1984 to enable universities to optimize football revenue, triggering a scramble for television-driven profits and the sweeping turmoil of today, now reflects on the pivotal case he championed with remorse.
“I believe I’ve caused a significant disruption across college football, as the case seems to have accomplished just that,” Coats recently conveyed to NBC News while contemplating his involvement in NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma.
The highest court in the United States ruled favorably for Coats’ clients, asserting that the governing body of collegiate athletics couldn’t restrict the trade rights of educational institutions and their conferences.
Presently, the once-stable realm of college football has evolved into an incessant exchange, with universities incessantly altering their conference associations to secure more lucrative television contracts. Consequently, the Pac-12, an establishment with a 108-year legacy, is set to dwindle to four schools and potentially dissolve entirely.
These monumental agreements have propelled the value of televised college football games to astronomical heights in recent decades, often at the expense of student-athletes who must frequently traverse thousands of miles for routine matches that were once conveniently accessible via short plane rides or bus trips.
Earlier this week, Jack Swarbrick, the Athletic Director of Notre Dame, criticized the shifting of conferences as a “total catastrophe.”
“The decision-making process has lost sight of its focus on the student-athlete and their best interests,” he remarked on “The Dan Patrick Show.” “I am an advocate for more localized scheduling; I believe it’s highly sensible.”
While the 1984 case primarily concerned televised football, its practical implications have reverberated across all programs, disproportionately impacting athletes in non-revenue and Olympic sports who bear the weight of extensive travel.
Paige Sinicki, a softball player at Oregon, recently expressed her dissatisfaction with the new reality of conference games spanning as far as New Jersey – a cross-country journey she didn’t anticipate when committing to play for the Ducks.
“I chose to participate in a competitive softball conference where proximity to home would enable my parents to attend my games,” Sinicki articulated on X, the former Twitter platform. “It’s disheartening to realize that during my senior year, I’ll be engaging in competitions as distant as New Jersey, even facing off against schools on the East Coast.”
In another post, she wrote, “I can only hope that we, the student-athletes, will be adequately supported for the frequent travel, time zone shifts, and hours on the road that we’ll be facing each week.”
Ben Westfall, the announcer for Marshall University, known for his roles in soccer, volleyball, baseball, and softball broadcasts, emphasized the lack of consideration for athletes in non-revenue sports who bear the brunt of extensive travel.
Marshall University is about to embark on its first academic year in the Sun Belt Conference, a league based in New Orleans that now extends as far west as San Marcos, Texas.
“This goes beyond mere finances; the realignment affects not only football and basketball but everyone, particularly the athletes,” Westfall wrote on X. “The evolution of college athletics is genuinely disheartening.”
This trajectory driven by financial incentives was paved by Coats and his clients, culminating in non-stop football broadcasts and conference instability.
Practically every game within the highest tier of college football, the Football Bowl Subdivision, is now either streamed or televised nationally or regionally.
The 2023-24 FBS season commences with Navy facing Notre Dame, set to be aired at 2:30 p.m. EDT on NBC from Dublin.
On a typical autumn Saturday, a college football enthusiast can indulge in Big Ten action starting at noon ET and remain glued to the screen until the final West Coast fixture concludes, sometimes as late as 2 a.m. on Sunday.
With appropriate cable or satellite subscriptions and streaming services, over 100 games can be enjoyed every Saturday during the fall season.
However, prior to NCAA v. Board of Regents, only a handful of games were televised, featuring mainly major annual matchups like Michigan-Ohio State, USC-UCLA, Texas-Oklahoma, and Army-Navy.
“This ruling completely revolutionized the landscape,” remarked Robert Thompson, a professor at Syracuse University and a historian of television. “It transitioned from a mere one-game weekly broadcast to the telecast of almost all games, erasing the notion of geographical limits.”
Television networks, driven by substantial investments, prioritize showcasing marquee names in college football, regardless of their location. This approach has led to a series of conference reconfigurations aimed at maximizing marketability but resulting in considerable cartographical confusion.