The Fifty-Year Seduction

How Television Manipulated College Football, from the Birth of the Modern NCAA to the Creation of the BCS

Keith Dunnavant

Thomas Dunne Books

The Fifty-Year Seduction
1
THE BIG BLUFF
Inside a crowded, smoke-filled Dallas hotel ballroom on a dreary day in January 1951, retired Admiral Thomas J. Hamilton grabbed a mike and rallied his troops. "We are dealing with a terrific force like a powerful wind of gale velocity," he thundered. "We are already feeling the first breezes of this hurricane." After speaking for several minutes about the danger looming on the horizon, the decorated Naval aviator urged his colleagues to "act now" or risk "serious harm" from being "caught in the path" of the "great threat" to their way of life.
As he looked around the room, Hamilton saw the fear in many eyes.
Facing an unprecedented crisis, the college sports officials gathered for the forty-fifth annual convention of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) listened to Hamilton--the University of Pittsburgh's athletic director--with an alarming sense of urgency. The need to act boldly was nearly unanimous.
Gripped by a sense of gathering hysteria, the delegates seemed resolved to harness their collective strength to save college football ... from the menace of television.
 
 
On Saturday, September 30, 1939, as the Nazi blitzkreig of Poland plunged Europe into war and isolationist America, still recovering from the Great Depression, tried desperately not to notice, announcer Bill Stern welcomed a tiny audience of viewers to the first televised college football game, a contest between powerhouse Fordham--home of the fabled Seven Blocks of Granite--and lightly regarded Waynesboro State at Triboro Stadium on an island in the middle of New York City's East River. Early in the first quarter, the single camera positioned high in the stands panned wide to capture Waynesboro's Bobby Brooks rambling for a sixty-three-yard, history-making touchdown as the small crowd of fans who had made the 400-mile journey from western Pennsylvania cheered with great enthusiasm. But Fordham was too good. The Rams, a perennial top-twenty team in those early days of the Associated Press rankings, overwhelmed the Yellow Jackets to claim a 34-7 victory.
The telecast represented yet another first for the National Broadcasting Company's (NBC) experimental New York station, following by one month the first televised Major League Baseball game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Cincinnati Reds and preceding by three weeks the first televised professional football game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and Philadephia Eagles of the National Football League. The forerunner of WNBC-TV--a division of David Sarnoff's giant Radio Corporation of America (RCA) conglomerate, which controlled two national radio networks and dominated the manufacturing of sets--also broadcast the first live news event, the first boxing match, the first scenes from a Broadway play, the first musical performance, and the first man-on-the-street interview.
With a tower and transmitter located atop the Empire State Building, the world's tallest manmade structure and one of the marvels of the age, located some fifteen blocks south of the RCA Building in Midtown Manhattan, NBC beamed a signal capable of being received throughout the greater New York City area. However, television remained a novelty. Only a few hundred primitiveblack-and-white sets with tiny screens measuring 7.5x10 inches existed and the hefty price tag of about $500 rendered them a luxury enjoyed mostly by the wealthy or purchased by tavern owners looking for a way to attract customers.
When the Philco Corporation introduced television to Philadelphia during the same period, just a step behind RCA, many of the earliest TVs ended up in the homes of the company's employees, especially the engineers trying to work the kinks out of the technology. In 1939, Philco's station became the first affiliate of the NBC television network, and the following year, the two stations cooperated to provide coverage to both cities of the 1940 Republican National Convention. From the start, the forerunner of KYW-TV Channel 3 gravitated to sports programming. On October 5, 1940, when about 700 TVs were scattered around the area, the station broadcast the University of Pennsylvania's 51-0 victory over the University of Maryland at Franklin Field--the landmark first game in a partnership that would last for eleven seasons, helping cement the bond between the city's sports fans and the new medium.
When the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) allowed commercial telecasting to commence on July 1, 1941--and granted the first licenses to the RCA and Philco stations, followed quickly by WCBS-TV in New York and WRGB-TV in Schenectady, New York--the industry appeared on the verge of taking the country by storm. Sun Oil sponsored the first news broadcast and the Bulova watch company bought the first commercial, paying $4 to show the image of a clock face as the second hand slowly revolved around the dial. But Pearl Harbor changed everything. For the duration of World War II, with set production halted, television remained in a holding pattern. The established stations continued to broadcast to an extremely limited universe and to the vast majority of the country, to the millions who arranged their schedules to catch popular radio programs like Jack Benny, Amos & Andy, and The Shadow, television did not exist.
When the war ended, the powers behind the new mediumquickly refocused their energies and the number of stations and sets exploded. During the last half of the 1940s, more than 100 stations signed on the air in sixty-three different cities--spreading the technology to many corners of the country, especially the largest metropolitan areas of the East Coast, industrial Midwest, and West Coast--and the first regularly scheduled network programming emerged as NBC, CBS, DuMont, and ABC battled for viewers. Between 1947 and 1950, the number of sets soared from 7,000 to 9.2 million, making television a powerful force in most large cities across the country.
Throughout the postwar boom, sports in general, and college football in particular, became a popular vehicle for local stations desperately searching for attractive programming. In 1945, NBC assembled stations in the three trailblazing cities--New York, Philadelphia, and Schenectady--to broadcast the Army-Navy game from Philadelphia, making the Cadets' national championship-clinching victory college football's first network telecast. All across the country in the areas of significant television penetration, college teams eagerly embraced the chance to partner with TV Oklahoma, Georgia Tech, Southern Cal, and others broadcast their entire home schedules.
Chris Schenkel, a broadcast novice fresh out of college, anchored a three-station Harvard network across New England and, between syllables, helped invent the way the still-developing medium covered the game. "I had nothing to base my role on," he recalled. "Was I supposed to talk as much as a radio announcer or shut up and let the pictures tell the story? Who knew?"
In the emerging world of televised sports, Pennsylvania's long-standing relationship with KYW-TV made it a pioneer without peer. A relatively strong program in an era when the Ivy League still mattered--the Quakers produced three top-20 teams during the late 1940s and routinely averaged 60,000 or more fans at Franklin Field--Penn saw television as a powerful publicity tool and a source of growing revenue. With the television landscape expanding rapidly, university officials expected the investment to pay off to an even greater degree in the years ahead.
In 1950, just as network television began to spread across the country, Penn sold the rights to its home games to the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) for $150,000 and Notre Dame, the sport's biggest name, cut a $185,000 deal with DuMont, slightly larger than ABC at the time and the most aggressive sports programmer of the day.
 
Television was well on its way to becoming the most powerful medium ever invented. Altering the fabric of American life like no invention since electricity, TV gave consumers a new reason to stay home and advertisers a new place to reach and influence millions of potential consumers. Faced with the competition, the motion picture industry entered a period of wrenching contraction. Newspapers, magazines, and radio found themselves under assault, their dominance as delivery systems for news, entertainment, and advertising forever shattered.
The sports world faced a significant dilemma. In those days, ticket sales provided nearly all of the revenue for every sport, from Major League Baseball to college football. While television represented a wonderful way to spread the various sports to a wider audience, it also created a virtually unlimited supply of free tickets at a time when television rights fees remained relatively modest. Many sports officials believed fans once accustomed to buying tickets were starting to stay home in large numbers and watch for free.
Faced with a decline in Major League attendance of 13.7 percent from 1949 to 1950 and a 19 percent drop for the various minor leagues, baseball executives pinned the blame on competition from television. They started discussing how they could work together to limit the medium's impact on turnstyles. Fred Saigh, the owner of the St. Louis Cardinals, favored the radical step of banning all telecasting--not imagining the day when television's riches would turn .215 hitters into millionaires.
Unrestricted television fostered similar tension between broadcasters and college football. All across the country, colleges in areasof significant television coverage were starting to report sizable declines in football ticket sales in the face of widespread broadcast of college games. The University of Washington blamed a $50,000 athletic deficit on a TV-related ticket shortfall. Over a two-year period when the University of Oklahoma's games were telecast statewide, the Sooners sold 15,000 fewer tickets in the Oklahoma City area, far surpassing the income derived from TV rights fees. UCLA reported a 26 percent attendance decline--even higher than the overall 19 percent drop across the Pacific Coast Conference, which maintained a liberal attitude toward television, broadcasting a total of 30 games in 1950--and an 11 percent reduction in revenue, meaning TV fees were not coming close to bridging the gap.
With no way to generate substantial income to replace declining ticket sales, which subsidized basketball, baseball, lesser sports, and intramurals, college administrators struggled to balance the books. Fearing the possibility of draconian cuts if the trend continued--perhaps an end to football and all the sports it supported--some officials started acting to protect themselves. The members of the Big Ten Conference--home of powerhouses including Michigan and Ohio State--agreed to abstain from live telecasting in 1950. The Southeastern Conference--home of traditional winners including Tennessee, Georgia, and Louisiana State--voted a similar moratorium, but member Georgia Tech defied the ban and telecast its games on an Atlanta station.
Feeling increasingly vulnerable on the subject, the members of the NCAA, a loosely organized union of colleges and universities large and small, commissioned a comprehensive survey on college football attendance patterns by the National Opinion Research Company (NORC) prior to the 1950 football season. The NCAA also appointed a three-member committee--chaired by Admiral Hamilton and including Southern Cal athletic director Bill Hunter and Columbia athletic director Ralph Furey--to study the situation and assess the NORC's findings.
 
 
Hamilton infused the effort with unquestioned credibility. A former star halfback at Navy, he had risen through the ranks during World War II to become one of Admiral William F. "Bull" Halsey's most trusted aides. Widely credited with developing the carrier fleet's night raid tactics, which helped win the war in the Pacific, Hamilton eventually became the commanding officer of the legendary Enterprise, which gave him tremendous stature among the patriotic men who ran the nation's college sports programs.
"Admiral Hamilton was a giant figure," said Jeff Coleman, the Alabama athletic business manager, who later joined the television committee. "Everyone respected him and valued his leadership."
As he stood before his colleagues and presented his report at the Hotel Adolphus, Hamilton was convinced he was leading the charge against an enemy with the power to destroy college football. The atmosphere was tense. Never before had the sport seemed so imperiled, and the men charged with leading the nation's athletic programs were not worried about overreacting.
"You have to understand that we were dealing with a very dire situation," Hamilton said forty years later. "We were fighting for the future of the sport. There was almost a sense of panic about the whole process."
Between 1949 and 1950, according to the NORC survey, overall college football attendance in areas with some television presence declined by 6 percent. However, more ominously, in the Middle Atlantic region, home to the largest saturation of TV sets, ticket sales plunged by 15.5 percent. Other areas with significant TV penetration produced even bigger declines, including a 28.7 percent drop in New England.
Rather than following tradition and attending a game of their choice, Hamilton argued that many fans were staying home and watching one or more of the many games available on TV
"Television does have an adverse effect on attendance," Hamilton told his colleagues, "and unless brought under some control, threatens to seriously harm the overall ... system."
Confronted with the grim statistics, the vast majority of the athletic officials believed they needed to act to tame television. Officialsfrom areas still waiting for widespread telecasting--especially the Southeast and the Great Plains--feared even steeper declines once the medium reached critical mass.
"It is the near-unanimous opinion of the Southeastern Conference," said SEC commissioner Bernie Moore, "that a definite television policy should be established by the NCAA." He added that most of the schools in the league--with the notable exception of Georgia Tech--believed "if direct telecast of Southeastern games is permitted, that such procedure would almost ruin football in that area."
Most troubling to many were the actions of Notre Dame and Penn, who had jumped ahead of their peers by partnering with network TV Their games could be seen in many parts of the country with access to ABC and DuMont programming, and many officials feared the Fighting Irish and Quakers were on the verge of dominating the medium. "We had to act to keep Penn and Notre Dame from being on every week," said Alabama's Coleman. "That could have been so damaging to college football."
 
Two years after losing a contentious battle for the Republican presidential nomination, former Minnesota governor Harold Stassen was named president of the University of Pennsylvania in 1950. It did not take him long to cast a critical eye on the Quakers' athletic program. Stassen, a man of big ideas, believed Penn football was not living up to its potential. He thought the Quakers should be able to compete with the major powers like Notre Dame and Michigan, so he started looking around for a dynamic athletic director who could make Penn more of a force on the national college football scene. Francis T "Franny" Murray came to his attention through a mutual friend.
A member of the Quakers' famed "Destiny Backfield" of the 1930s--which made him a Penn hero when such a distinction carried lifelong implications--Murray was settled into a comfortablejob as the director of Inquirer Charities, the philanthropic arm of The Philadelphia Inquirer's publishing empire, where he organized various events, including an early exhibition game between the National Football League's Philadelphia Eagles and the Cleveland Browns of the rival All-America Football Conference. Looking for a new challenge, he immediately hit it off with Stassen, who hired him to take over the Penn sports program starting right after New Year's Day in 1951.
Less than two weeks into his new position, Murray sat in the Dallas hotel listening intently to Hamilton and others talk about the dangers of television. He was stunned. After the committee proposed a nationwide ban on unrestricted television combined with a small number of NCAA-administered "test" broadcasts during the 1951 season, Murray asked for time to address the membership.
He spoke for several minutes about Penn's long tradition of televising its games and expressed the minority view that TV could prove to be a great ally of the sport. "I think we are being a little shortsighted when we look at a crowded stadium and think that is the saturation point," he said. He also raised the specter of such a plan violating the antitrust laws and told the delegates that a decision to abide by such a ban "will not be left just to the athletic director."
But the rest of the NCAA membership was in no mood to listen to Murray. By a vote of 161-7, the NCAA approved the restricted plan. Except for the NCAA-controlled broadcasts, all other telecasting was to cease, meaning Penn, Notre Dame, Georgia Tech, and others were suddenly forbidden by NCAA rules from airing their games.
 
After more than a decade of telecasting, Penn was being forced off the air by a majority edict in a supposedly voluntary organization--a largely impotent confederation with no precedent for enforcing such sweeping power.
"They were seizing our property rights," Murray said four decades later. "It was un-American what they were trying to do, and I wasn't about to take it lying down."
When he returned to Philadelphia and conferred with his new boss, Murray was gratified to learn that Stassen agreed with him. "He was as angered by the implications as I was," Murray said. "He couldn't understand how a bunch of colleges could tell us what to do with the University of Pennsylvania's property."
Several weeks later, in a routine meeting with members of the Ivy League--still an informal group--Murray raised the possibility of a joint lawsuit challenging the action on antitrust grounds. But Penn's standing within the Ivy League was shaky. For years, some of the prestigious institutions had looked down on Penn because the school played many programs outside the group and appeared to be pursuing more of a "big-time" agenda, especially with regard to athletic scholarships.
"Yale considered Penn part of the great unwashed," remarked future Penn athletic director Jerry Ford. "They thought they were too good for us."
When Murray asked for help, the rest of the league turned a deaf ear and instead voiced support for the NCAA plan.
Unbowed, Murray and Stassen decided to oppose the NCAA alone.
Ignoring the ban, Murray negotiated a $180,000 contract with ABC, granting the network the right to telecast all of the Quakers' home games in 1951. He then sent a telegram to Hugh C. Willett, a member of the University of Southern California faculty, who held the appointed position of NCAA president, the highest-ranking official in the organization. In addition to asking for a special meeting to consider the ramifications of the policy, the telegram said Penn would not be bound by the NCAA rule and would "carry on as an obligation to its alumni, friends, and the public its eleven-year record of television." Murray said Penn would split the television revenue equally with its opponents.
Attempting to seize the high moral ground, Stassen issued astatement denouncing the NCAA. "Central control is a kind of disease which slips into the minds of men around the world," he said. "But it is not the American approach to problems."
Immediately, the NCAA counterattacked. "By breaking away," Hamilton told reporters, "Pennsylvania is setting itself apart and incidentally taking advantage of the artificial vacuum caused by the willingness of other schools to pass up financial gain this year."
The day after Murray's announcement, the NCAA declared the university a "member not of good standing," painting Penn as a renegade in the eyes of the college sports establishment. This very public censure held the potential of preventing Penn teams from participating in the small number of NCAA-SANCTIONED events in other sports, including the upcoming International Rowing Association championship, but otherwise had little practical effect on the football team or the rest of the athletic program.
But, pressured by the NCAA membership, four members of the Ivy League--Cornell, Columbia, Dartmouth, and Princeton--announced that they would cancel scheduled 1951 games against Pennsylvania unless the university acquiesced on the television front, a boycott that represented a potentially crippling blow to Penn's entire athletic department. Several other opponents straddled the fence. It was a historic moment. When the four schools came to the defense of the virtually powerless NCAA, they infused it, unwittingly and irrevocably, with new authority.
"I was just stunned by their response," Murray said. "It was like they were holding a gun to our head."
While Murray considered his options, Notre Dame officials, who read about the Ivy schools' actions with a sense of outrage, fired a shot across the NCAA's bow. On June 15, nine days after Murray's telegram, Father John J. Cavanaugh, president of the nation's most prominent Catholic university, issued a statement challenging the NCAA's authority and charging the association's policy makers with using "dictatorial powers." In part, it read:
We have the firm intention of supporting the unity of the NCAA. We certainly wish to cooperate in any program which is for the overall good of athletics, but we do not see this good promoted by blindly acquiescing to very dubious principles and procedures simply because such policies and procedures are forced into practice under threat of a boycott ...
Cavanaugh stopped short of announcing Notre Dame would defy the ban and continue to televise its home games. But even as the university weighed its options--with DuMont anxious to extend their relationship into 1951--Cavanaugh, top assistant Father Theodore Hesburgh, and others struggled to make sense of the NCAA's actions. The most controversial part of the restricted plan called for the NCAA to receive 60 percent of the rights payments from all 1951 telecasts, which Notre Dame considered an ominous precedent. "If these powers are permitted," Cavanaugh said, "what would prevent some future committee from telling a school how many games it might play or where it might play them or to levy a 60 percent tax on the proceeds from ticket sales?"
 
Confronted with a major crisis, the athletic officials who led the effort to restrict television wanted only to protect college football. It was quite understandable for these well-intentioned men to look at the statistics and conclude that television was having a negative effect on attendance--even though the correlation could not be proven and no one could yet say whether such declines resulted more from the novelty of television than a long-term trend. It was a world full of unknowns, and the administrators who pushed the panic button certainly were justified in joining forces to try to solve the problem. But the officials failed to consider how they were allowing their fear to trample on the ideals oftheir organization. No matter how noble their intent, they did not have the right to force dissenting schools to comply. They did not have the right to bully Penn.
By attempting to coerce Penn to surrender its television property, the NCAA and the four Ivy League schools crossed a line. It was a despicable, shameful act of thuggery, a strong-arm tactic worthy of back alley hoodlums and pulp fiction gangsters.
Without offering to compensate Penn for its losses, the association just picked the school's pocket and dared the Quakers to do something about it, hiding behind majority will, allowing the organization to be overtaken by a mob mentality that betrayed the members' honorable history of decency and fair-mindedness. It was the sports equivalent of a third-world dictator nationalizing a foreign corporation's assets, and such socialistic robbery violated the foundations of American justice and economic liberty.
The very public fight caught the attention of the Department of Justice, and Murray came away from a meeting with Attorney General J. Howard McGrath believing the government supported his challenge. "He said the NCAA's legal position was weak," Murray said. "He said to bring a suit because our chances were very good."
When Murray asked the NCAA to join Penn in submitting the plan to the federal government for review, the NCAA quickly refused.
Suddenly, Penn faced a defining choice. It could challenge the ban in court, defy the restriction and risk losing at least four games and possibly others once the college sports leadership started applying pressure, or relent on the television issue and make peace.
The NCAA and the renegade program were playing a high-stakes poker game, and Penn was falling victim to the Big Bluff.
The NCAA was holding a lousy hand. Even though the entire college sports landscape was lined up against Penn, the NCAA plan was built on a shaky legal foundation; the association did not have the legal authority to seize Penn's television rights even witha majority vote of the membership; the body did not have the constitutional power to punish Penn to encourage compliance; and the Ivy boycott looked suspiciously like an antitrust violation.
By raising the stakes to a tremendous level--forcing Murray to choose between gambling the future of the program and folding his hand--the NCAA was bluffing with all attitude and no cards.
But Murray and Stassen were taking a beating in the media, and the combination of the bad press--which painted Penn as selfish, greedy, and unwilling to help college football solve its biggest problem--and the possibility of a decimated schedule motivated them to throw in their cards. Unwilling to risk the potentially dire consequences of standing up for the principle of institutional autonomy, Penn surrendered the point and canceled its deal with ABC on July 19.
"We dropped the ball by not taking the thing to court," Murray said. "But what were we going to do, take on the entire college sports establishment?"
Notre Dame reluctantly agreed to abide by the ban.
The following January, Murray fought the issue on the floor of the annual NCAA Convention in Cincinnati. But he was one lonely voice facing a group motivated by fear and jealousy, by emotion rather than reason.
"No one wanted to stick their neck out to help Penn," said Bud Dudley, Villanova's athletic director in the early 1950s. "Murray was right about the whole thing, but he was all alone."
The findings of a more detailed attendance survey convinced most of the membership that controlling television was the only way to save college football, so, by a 163-8 margin, they voted to empower the television committee to create a full-fledged national TV series for the 1952 season. The membership also enacted a ninth bylaw to the NCAA Constitution granting the association new powers to create and enforce legislation--closing the loophole challenged by Cavanaugh and establishing a framework for compelling institutions to follow NCAA policy.
Although no one fully appreciated it at the time, the televisioncrisis fundamentally altered the relationship between the NCAA and its members, setting the stage for a new age NCAA built on the authority of majority rule. The fear created by television became the catalyst in the transformation of the NCAA into the most dominant force in college athletics.
By bluffing Penn so skillfully, the NCAA emerged more powerful, like a bully with a reputation. To the rest of college athletics, Penn was a reminder, a warning: Don't challenge the majority.
Eventually, someone would call the bluff.