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  • A Cartel in the Public Interest:NCAA Broadcast Policy During the Early Cold War
  • Jeffrey Montez de Oca (bio)

In 1951, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) began regulating college football broadcasting on television with the claim that regulations served the public interest. The establishment of broadcast regulations transformed the NCAA from a confederation of semi-autonomous institutions into a powerful governing and policing body that controlled college athletics. Broadcast regulations further transformed the NCAA into a cartel that fixed the value of football broadcasts by limiting supply in order to gain monopoly profits.1 Claiming that regulations served the public interest enabled the NCAA's restraint of trade by shielding it from a possible U.S. Supreme Court "rule of reason" test.

Situating the 1951 creation of broadcast regulations within a broader history of the NCAA during the twentieth century demonstrates how transformations in the economy are dialectically tied to cultural formations. Comparing the NCAA's strategies of action in the 1950s to 1905 when the NCAA was established and to 1984 when the U.S. Supreme Court deregulated college football broadcasting highlights continuities and contradictions in U.S. liberalism. Economic and cultural conditions of the 1950s, which made cartelization a possibility for the NCAA, did not exist in either 1905 or 1984. Strategies of action in commercial sport must be consistent with existing market conditions and available technologies. At the same time, the choices made by social actors are not simply determined by impersonal economic and technological forces.2 The NCAA was not only responsive to market conditions, but also guided by prevailing systems of [End Page 157] thought in each period, specifically the social construction of reason.3 Comparing these three periods show how determinations of reason as well as economic practices in 1905, 1951, and 1984 were responsive to broader trends within U.S. society.

Football historian Ronald Smith (2001) states that the first priority of any institution is survival and then prosperity.4 While this is essentially true, capitalism's competitive environment forces institutions to strive for prosperity in order to survive. This article shows how the NCAA charted different strategies of action to achieve prosperity as U.S. capitalism shifted from progressive era Corporate Liberalism to Postwar Fordism to Neoliberalism. The article begins in the Progressive Era with an outline of the NCAA's establishment in 1905. The next section details at length how the NCAA used the conditions of the early Cold War and constructions of masculinity to establish its broadcast regulations. The last section analyzes the construction of reason in the 1984 National Collegiate Athletic Association v Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma decision that ended NCAA broadcast regulations and contextualizes the decision in the emergence of Neoliberalism.5 In each period, the balance of authority between colleges and the NCAA shifted up and back but the quest for prosperity remained constant. Another constant was the use of reformist rhetoric to legitimate a greater centralization of power and wealth in increasingly large institutions.

Corporate Liberalism and the Founding of the NCAA

Higher educational institutions formed the NCAA in 1905 in response to widespread condemnation of college football's brutality and scandals. The impetus to create the NCAA grew out of conditions of the 1890s.6 To understand those conditions, we need to step back a few years. Young men began playing ball games on the campuses of northeastern colleges in the 1860s. The game of American football developed during the 1870s and 1880s. By the 1890s, the game had become very popular and spread to every region of the United States.7 With popularity came profitability and scandal. The progressive press reacted to cheating and violence that was perceived as rife in the game.8 Criticism of the excesses in college football created the conditions in which the NCAA could arise.

A group of schools that participated in a high level of intercollegiate football competition created the NCAA. Most, if not all, were motivated by financial and institutional interests. As a result, they designed the NCAA as a representative organization to reform the game and quell calls to ban it.9 In reforming football, NCAA member institutions had no desire...


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