Two major football powers have scored a decisive legal touchdown against their parent association, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). And the result could affect millions of American armchair quarterbacks who view Saturday afternoon games on national TV.
In a 7-to-2 antitrust ruling Wednesday, the US Supreme Court sharply curtailed the NCAA's longtime authority over the televising of college football games. In finding for the universities of Oklahoma and Georgia, the court opened the door for individual colleges to negotiate with national, regional, and local broadcasters to televise their games.
The court ruled that the NCAA's hundreds of millions of dollars in TV contracts with ABC, CBS, and Turner Broadcasting are in conflict with federal antitrust law. As for the deals already signed for next fall, lower court hearings will be necessary to work out details in line with the new decision.
Writing for the court's majority, Associate Justice John Paul Stevens said: ''The anti-competitive consequences of (the NCAA) arrangement are apparent. Individual competitors lose their freedom to compete. Price (for TV rights) is higher and output (measured by games televised) lower than they would otherwise be, and both are unresponsive to consumer preference.''
Associate Justice Byron R. White (a former All-American football player), in dissent, said that the NCAA's exclusive television rights package ''reflects (its) fundamental policy of preserving amateurism and integrating athletics and education.'' Associate Justice William H. Rehnquist joined in this minority opinion.
Justice White last year suspended lower-court antitrust rulings against the NCAA television contracts. Yesterday's decision dissolved this suspension.
And the high court majority disagreed with Mr. White on the issue of amateurism. Justice Stevens said the NCAA's ''critical role in the maintenance of a revered tradition of amateurism in college sports'' is not enhanced by monopolistic TV contracts.
He continued: ''Rules that restrict output are hardly consistent with this role. . . . By curtailing output and blunting the ability of member institutions to respond to consumer preference, the NCAA has restricted rather than enhanced the place of intercollegiate athletics in the nation's life.''
The NCAA is an unincorporated association of more than 780 public and private US colleges and universities which - under rules approved by members - supervises athletic competitions between and among member institutions. Also, under a so-called ''television plan,'' the association has up to now served as the sole agent of its members and entered into exclusive contracts with national broadcasters for the purpose of televising live college football.
One result has been control of the number of appearances made by member schools on network TV. In bringing suit before the high court, Georgia and Oklahoma - among 61 major schools that are members of the College Football Association - challenged this limitation by the NCAA as monopolistic. They said such exclusive rights eliminate price competition, restrict output, foreclose on small telecasters and advertisers, and unreasonably restrain trade.
On the other hand, the NCAA said its TV contracts have generated bigger audiences for college football and have actually promoted competition, as the games vie for viewers and advertising with other shows. The 10th US Circuit Court of Appeals rejected these claims, saying the NCAA football telecasts competed mainly with cartoons and old movies, and commanded advertising revenues far in excess of other Saturday afternoon shows.