- Fumbled Call: The Bear Bryant–Wally Butts Football Scandal That Split the Supreme Court and Changed American Libel Law by David E. Sumner
Few stories in American sport law are as uniquely interesting as the 1967 case of Curtis Publishing Company v. Butts. Embedded in a libel case is a sport story with all the intrigue of a movie script. One of the best-known football coaches in college football history, Paul “Bear” Bryant at the University of Alabama, was supposedly involved in fixing a 1962 contest game with the University of Georgia athletic director and head football coach Wally Butts. This information was overheard by George Burnett, an Atlanta insurance salesman, through an accidentally misconnected line. Burnett made notes of the conversation and provided the information to the Saturday Evening Post. Upon discovery, the magazine published an article titled “The Story of a College Football Fix.” This information appears to be the foundational story of a fictional novel, except that it may have occurred, depending on whom the reader believes.
Sumner attempts to provide a detailed image of each of the key players in the book while tying them to the history as it occurs. At times, this structure makes for challenging reading, as often the reader loses the underlying history due to the biographical information. [End Page 133] Readers can be confused and unsure in the early chapters as to whether the author is more interested in the famous figures or the case events. Specifically, the book begins with an explanation of where Sumner went to find information for the case. This information is clearly cited and gives strong credence to what Sumner writes. He then introduces the Butts–Bryant telephone call and the unintentional overhearing by Burnett. Sumner clearly establishes that his purpose is to provide the reader with information that allows him/her to make his/her own judgment on one of the most commonly discussed libel cases in a sport-law context. Sumner repeatedly goes back to this purpose throughout the book, leaving the reader with the key information about the case from the author’s point of view.
As the book progresses, the context becomes clearer and more interesting, as readers will begin to wonder who was telling the truth and whether the decisions made by the various courts (for example, trial, appeal, and U.S. Supreme Court) were correct. Sumner provides detailed case testimony based on actual transcripts from the trial as well as information from a variety of archives. These archives provide the reader a detailed picture of what occurred during the 10:07 a.m. call on Thursday, September 13, 1962, from Butts to Bryant using a University of Georgia credit card from Communications International (that is, a public relations firm that Butts often visited while in Atlanta). Concurrently, Burnett was attempting to call Milton Flack at Communications International and, through an error, was able to overhear the approximately sixty-minute Butts–Bryant phone call. Burnett decided to take notes as he felt the information discussed between the two coaches appeared controversial. This type of presentation makes the book a very fascinating read for individuals with a strong interest in sport legal history.
Sumner leaves the reader with a significant amount to contemplate from all angles in the case, allowing the reader to become highly engaged. Beyond the long attempts to bring life-stories into the book, Sumner provides a gripping commentary of what occurred in the trial. He also does an excellent job of remaining neutral when discussing the historical events, instead allowing the reader to develop his/her own decisions as to who was right and wrong and whether Burnett, Butts, or Bryant had gained anything from the call.
Sumner’s effort is well worth a read if someone is interested in learning about one of the most interesting sport court cases of the last fifty years. The author, while sometimes jumping around between biographical information and the narrative...