Citing restraint of trade, the court stripped the NCAA of much of its centralized power. A quarter-century later, the Big 12 has been weakened, the entire college football structure destabilized, and Oklahoma is threatened because Texas, with its powerful Longhorn Network deal, is acting so rapaciously, running “roughshod” and making its own rules. Well, where do you think Texas got the idea? It’s pretty entertaining that Oklahoma, which asked for this landscape, is crying for some sort of protection from it.
But White could have told Oklahoma it might not like a world in which there was no overarching NCAA authority. In fact he did, in a prescient dissent.
“By mitigating what appears to be a clear failure of the free market to serve the ends and goals of higher education,” he wrote, “the NCAA ensures the continued availability of a unique and valuable product, the very existence of which might well be threatened by unbridled competition in the economic sphere.”
The court was making a terrible mistake, White warned, by in effect “subjugating the NCAA’s educational goals . . . to the purely competitive commercialism of [an] ‘every school for itself’ approach to television contract bargaining.”
Back then White was virtually alone — all of his bench colleagues disagreed with him except William Rehnquist, perhaps for good reason. The NCAA of a quarter-century ago was a tyrannical monopoly under a dictator-president, Walter Byers, who created a doorstopper of a rule book and even decreed what time NCAA staffers had to close their drapes. From 1951 to 1984, the NCAA not only controlled TV rights fees, but limited schools to no more than six TV appearances in two years. This made bitter enemies of the large football powers. During the court case, then-Oklahoma President Bill Banowsky actually told Byers he “reminded him of J. Edgar Hoover.”
But White’s dissent is great reading anyway, because it’s so clearly anticipatory. If the NCAA was a monopoly, he also saw it as a bulwark against today’s ruthless, distrustful dealings. White had played both college and pro football; after a career as an all-American halfback at Colorado, in 1938 he signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates (now the Steelers) and led the NFL in rushing. Take away the NCAA’s power to restrain, White contended, and there goes any demarcation of amateurism. In the race to remain competitive, every school would inevitably grow ever more professional in outlook, unable to “confidently enforce its own standards” since it couldn’t trust fellow schools to do the same.