The National Collegiate Athletic Association, which has been the supreme power in intercollegiate sports for 35 years, is facing the stiffest challenge to its authority in years from 61 of the strongest and most influential schools in college football.

At stake are control over hundreds of millions of dollars in television broadcast rights to some of college football's most lucrative games and, according to some sources, the continued viability of the NCAA as the governing body for intercollegiate athletics.

The dispute, which also involves the three major television networks, is focused on the issue of who has the right to negotiate television broadcasts of college football games: the NCAA, which has been doing it for the last 25 years, or the College Football Association, a fledgling organization of 61 of college football's superpowers.

NCAA members, says Tom Hansen, assistant director of the NCAA, face disciplinary action, including probation and expulsion, if they appear on telecasts other than those approved by the NCAA.

Counters Charles M. Neinas, executive director of the CFA, "We feel quite strongly that each institution owns its athletic program and therefore owns the television broadcast rights of its football team. What the NCAA is trying to do is to seize control of an institution's property rights to television and also eliminate an institution's birthright to cable television."

The conflict will come to a head Aug. 21 in Atlanta when the CFA member schools vote on whether to approve a $180 million, four-year television contract the association negotiated last Friday with NBC-TV. That contract is to begin with the 1982 football season and calls for prime-time telecasts of Saturday night games as well as Saturday afternoon games.

That agreement is in direct conflict with a $263.5 million contract covering the same four years negotiated 10 days earlier by the NCAA and ABC-TV and CBS-TV, since many of the teams ABC and CBS would expect to appear on their telecasts would be appearing on NBC.

Among the CFA member schools voting on the NBC package will be those in the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Big Eight, the Southeastern Conference, the Southwest Conference, the Western Athletic Conference and such independents as Penn State, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Army, Navy, Florida State, Tulane, Virginia Tech and West Virginia.

Of the major conferences, only the Big Ten and the Pacific-10 are outside the CFA.

"Institutions have an obligation as part of their membership obligations to participate in the NCAA (television) plan," said Dave Cawood of the NCAA.

"When they are negligent in fulfilling their membership obligations, they are subject to enforcement proceedings and, when enforcement proceedings are focused on the negligence of membership obligations, all sports are affected."

Carried to its conclusion, such a policy could result in probation or expulsion from the NCAA for such schools as Oklahoma, Georgia, Alabama and Texas, not only for football but for other sports. That action clearly would be detrimental to the long-term health of the NCAA as well as to the athletic programs of the schools involved.

"If the NCAA puts the College Football Association on probation, isn't the NCAA putting itself on probation, as well?" asks the CFA's Neinas.

Joe Paterno, football coach and director of athletics at Penn State and a member of the CFA negotiating team, said there is no intent by the CFA to damage the NCAA.

"We don't want to get out of the NCAA," he said. "We want it to be viable. But with the television situation, you're talking about an institution's property rights. Nobody can negotiate an institution's property rights unless we give them permission. Just because we have allowed the NCAA to negotiate our rights for 25 years does not mean we are going to do it forever." It is part of the CFA agreement with NBC, he added, that the NCAA receive 8 percent of the rights fee, the same as the NCAA receives from ABC and CBS.

Formed in June 1977, the CFA essentially was an outgrowth of the frustration of major football school athletic directors and coaches at their inability to influence NCAA rules and regulations covering their programs.

"Decisions were being made on legislation which basically affected the major football institutions, but the decisions were being made by others," said Neinas, a former commissioner of the Big Eight Conference who resigned in April 1980 to take the CFA job.

Ivy League colleges, for example, were voting on policies that would govern the number of assistant coaches permitted at colleges such as Nebraska, he said, and all NCAA members vote on the television package whether they play football or not.

"At one NCAA convention, you had Davidson negating Oklahoma's vote," he recalled.

Additionally, said Neinas, ratings for television broadcasts of college football games have gone down steadily since 1976, and while the CFA schools provided 54 percent of the teams appearing in the first three years of the current four-year contract between the NCAA and ABC-TV, he said, they received only 48 percent of the rights fees, approximately $43 million.

At a June 7, 1981, meeting, CFA members passed a resolution reserving for themselves until further notice all rights to network and cable telecasts of their football contests. They also authorized their board of directors to investigate the possibility of a separate television package.

"We feel like we've got a quality product in a limited number of schools, and we want to protect our property rights to it," said Bill McLellan, director of athletics at Clemson University and another member of the CFA negotiating team. "We're dedicated and committed to our football program and we work at it 365 days a year."

Voting in Atlanta will be in closed session, and a simple majority will decide the issue. Should the CFA members opt for the NCAA package, that will be the end of the issue. Should they go with the CFA-NBC plan, they will have three weeks to reconsider, and another vote will be taken.

Dick Dull, director of athletics at the University of Maryland, said Maryland has not decided which way it will vote.

"There is a lot of money involved," he said. "The NCAA position is that they have been authorized to negotiate television contracts on behalf of the membership. That is a deviation from what some of the CFA members understand to be the case."

Similarly, in Annapolis, J.O. Coppedge, director of athletics at the Naval Academy, said he hadn't decided which way to go.

"The crux of the problem will be whether the CFA can remain as a regular member of the NCAA," Coppedge said. "I have heard both interpretations, that you would be able to maintain your NCAA membership and that you would not."

Charles Stanford, vice president for legal affairs at ABC-TV Sports, said the agreement with the NCAA provides for an escape clause if the CFA opts for the NBC package.

"We bought a bundle of rights, which we feel includes the rights to college football games of large and small schools. It includes the rights to the A-1 football powers. If the NCAA can't deliver them, we haven't received what we paid for and we have no agreement."

Said a spokesman for CBS, "We're going to televise college football games from 1982 to 1985. I presume NBC plans to do the games and ABC plans to do the games. It's hard to say what is going to happen. I think everybody is on hold and the lawyers could get rich."

An NBC spokesman said, "We've had an ongoing relationship with the CFA for two years. Our main concern was to get involved with college football and showcase it as part of a prime-time package. We're not naive. We're aware that the NCAA maintains they are the agents for those institutions that are involved in college football. But the CFA maintains otherwise, and we're in the marketplace doing business."