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The five-month TV war between the NCAA and one of its schools

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How a fight with an Ivy League team set the stage for 30 years of college football television policy

Photo by Mark Kauffman/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images. Banner Society Illustration.

At the January 1951 meeting of the NCAA, the biggest item on the agenda was the elimination of the definitely-not-melodramatically-named Sanity Code, the Association’s failed attempt to prevent schools from giving scholarships to athletes who did not demonstrate financial need. The death of the Sanity Code formally closed a particularly unpleasant chapter for the NCAA. Seven schools had openly admitted to flouting amateurism rules, but escaped punishment when their peers didn’t have the stomach to expel them, knowing they’d likely be next in the defendant’s seat.*

The second-biggest agenda item, however, would wind up launching the NCAA’s next war with one of its own members. By a 161-7 vote, the member institutions of the NCAA voted to ban television broadcasts for the 1951-1952 season, convinced that TV threatened ticket sales. Media coverage of the vote suggested the ban lacked any real bite. The NCAA had no constitutional procedure for penalizing any school that didn’t comply, rendering the ban more of an ethical recommendation.

One of the seven “nay” votes decided to test the limits of that recommendation: the University of Pennsylvania Quakers.

Penn might seem like an odd candidate to defy the NCAA now, but the Quakers of that time occupied a different rung in the sport’s hierarchy. Playing as an independent, Penn had a history of success (seven claimed national titles and the alma mater of John Heisman!) and made regular appearances in the AP Poll. The Quakers weren’t quite a juggernaut, but they still had some weight to throw around. (You know, as Quakers are famously prone to doing.)

More importantly in this fight, Penn had something very few of its peers could claim: a long history of televising football games. The Quakers broke new ground in 1940 when they partnered with local broadcaster Philco to put every home game on television. No school had ever aired its entire home schedule, and in 1950, Penn made $150,000 selling its TV rights.

Most power brokers, however, believed television was a threat to college sports, not a boon. Before that meeting in January, the NCAA received the preliminary results of a study they’d commissioned from the National Opinion Research Center. After eliminating extraneous factors like weather, ticket price increases, and team performance, the NORC tentatively concluded that televising football games caused a drop in attendance. The effect was more pronounced for a school broadcasting its own games, but programs that didn’t have TV deals still saw a dip if one of their neighboring teams did.

Terrified that television would kill ticket sales, the Big Ten, SEC, Southwest Conference, and Eastern College Athletic Conference – a looser federation of which Penn was a member – announced ahead of the January meeting that they’d be asking the NCAA for a nationwide ban. The NCAA – even then a perfect puppet organization – obliged, forbidding its members from broadcasting games for a year over the strenuous opposition of Penn’s representatives.

Three weeks later, Penn made it aggressively clear they had no intention of adhering to the NCAA’s commands by publicly soliciting bids from television networks for the rights to air the 1951 home slate. The NCAA struck back the next month, warning its members that any violator of the TV ban would be in bad standing with the Association and risk expulsion. Surely that shut Penn up, right?

Not even a little! On June 6, the Quakers announced that all eight of their home games would be televised as planned:

“The University of Pennsylvania will cooperate in studying and reporting to the NCAA on the effects of television but it will not combine in a ban on television and will carry on as an obligation to its alumni, friends and the public its 11-year record of television, dividing the revenues equally with the other universities and colleges with which it plays.” - Telegram from Franny Murray, Penn Athletic Director

Reportedly, Penn had a $200,000 broadcast deal in place for the 1951 season. If half of that was going to their opponents, that left the Quakers with $100,000, which is about a million in 2021 dollars. That’s not nothing, but it’s also not enough money to risk getting kicked out of college sports altogether. So why did Penn dig in? I think there were four reasons:

  1. Let’s start with Penn’s stated position. Repeatedly, school leadership insisted that the NCAA’s ban was a gross overstep of their limited power. The Quakers believed every member institution should control its own broadcast rights, in much the same way that schools set their own ticket prices or undertook stadium projects. Penn feared that yielding TV control to the NCAA would give the Association dominant power that violated antitrust law.
  2. Televised football wasn’t some new scary thing to Penn. Through its own experience and survey efforts, the school seemed satisfied that the benefits television offered outweighed any attendance drop. The NORC study might have rattled other schools, but Penn was (reasonably!) unconcerned about whether television would hurt SEC or Big Ten attendance.
  3. Penn knew a few other schools had either already dipped their toe into the television revenue waters or wanted to. Before the ban was put in place, Notre Dame rumoredly had a $500,000 broadcast contract lined up. The Quakers likely believed that they would be the first bulwark against the NCAA, but not the only one.
  4. Having just seen seven programs admit to violating amateurism restrictions and get away with it, Penn concluded the NCAA was far too toothless to actually sanction them. If you couldn’t get kicked out for ignoring the Association’s rules on paying players, why fear expulsion for flouting something as comparatively minor as a single-season TV ban?

Reason Four started looking shaky almost immediately after Penn’s June 6th announcement. The next day, the NCAA declared Penn was no longer “in good standing,” which meant the Quakers could not compete in the Association’s golf, track, and tennis tournaments held that month. Formally, it didn’t impact Penn’s football schedule, as those games were all arranged directly between the Quakers and their opponents. But it did give those opponents cause to question whether playing Penn and defying the NCAA was wise.

On the other hand, Reason Three looked stronger. The Associated Press reported on June 8th that Notre Dame and Army were likely to join Penn in defiance of the ban. The Irish had won the 1949 national title, and Army was 1950’s runner-up; gaining the support of both stood to help Penn’s chances immensely.

But the NCAA had learned something from the Sanity Code failure. Where a coalition of rebellious schools was difficult to break or censure, a single university could be frozen out. So they moved quickly to keep Penn isolated: The day after those reports about Notre Dame and Army, the NCAA announced that both schools had agreed to adhere to the 1951 ban. Penn was on its own.

Things got worse for the Quakers a few days later. On June 12th, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, and Princeton – half of Penn’s home schedule – declared they would not travel to Philadelphia if Penn televised games in violation of the NCAA’s ban. Penn could have folded then, and that could have been the end of the standoff.

It was not! At an alumni reunion event the next week, University of Pennsylvania President Harold Stassen held his ground:

“Penn will modify its own television program, it will limit it, it will report on it, it will change it, but the university will not permit any national organization to say dictatorially, ‘television is banned, and you must stop what you have been doing.’”

Penn was running short of cards to play, however. So they embraced a new tactic. The school’s athletic director wrote to H. Graham Morison, Assistant Attorney General and head of the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division, and asked if the DOJ had given their blessing to the NCAA’s plans. Morison replied: They had not, and they were opening an investigation.

So the Quakers made an offer to the NCAA. If the Justice Department approved of the NCAA’s ban, Penn would end its objection and fall into line.

In a shocking turn of events, the college sports power structure declined to subject its decision-making processes to federal oversight. Instead, the NCAA gave Penn a deadline: If the Quakers did not concede by July 19, they would be suspended, and subject to expulsion at the Association’s fall meeting.

Penn took all the time they had, possibly hoping that the Antitrust Division would come to their rescue, but when July 19th arrived, they surrendered.

The Association hadn’t just reasserted its power over the membership. During this process, it had also unveiled a new television strategy, a national system where the NCAA itself would sell one weekly game in each region to a single bidder, and teams would not appear on TV more than twice during the season. Whether they’d intended to or not, the schools and conferences that agreed to the initial ban had yielded control of their broadcast rights, and they wouldn’t get them back for three decades.

Sheepishly, Penn made one more attempt to maintain its television history. On July 21, the school filed a request with the NCAA to air five games locally, in the hopes of salvaging its broadcast contract.

The NCAA rejected that request, on the same day they announced a million dollar deal with Westinghouse Electric for the right to broadcast limited selections of the 1951 college football season.

*If you’d like to learn more about the Sinful Seven, we’ve heard this book is an interesting read.