Sumner, David E. Fumbled Call: The Bear Bryant-Wally Butts Football Scandal That Split the Supreme Court and Changed American Libel Law. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2018. 11 b/w photographs, acknowledgments, four appendices, chapter notes, bibliography, index. Pp. 234. $35.00 softcover.
Reviewed by Michael T. Wood
In Fumbled Call, David E. Sumner recounts the events surrounding the 1963 libel lawsuit former University of Georgia head football coach and athletic director Wallace “Wally” Butts, Jr. brought against Curtis Publishing Company, the publisher of the Saturday Evening Post. Before launching into his narrative, Sumner enumerates his sources and assures the fidelity of facts and quotes included in the text by noting his use of double-source verification, especially for courtroom dialogue. Essentially, the author approaches this work as a presentation of the case and its broader impact, leaving the reader to draw his/her own conclusions, but he also acknowledges that his personal position would become evident throughout the work.
The story began on September 13, 1962, when Atlanta insurance salesman George Burnett allegedly overheard portions of a telephone conversation between University of Alabama head football coach and athletic director Paul W. “Bear” Bryant and Butts. According to Burnett, Butts provided inside information regarding the young Georgia football team to Bryant in advance of the Crimson Tide’s game against the Bulldogs (a 35-0 win for Alabama) on September 22.
After the season, Burnett and an associate shared his account of the Bryant-Butts phone call with University of Georgia administrative and athletic officials during the Southeastern Conference (SEC) annual meeting. Internal investigations followed at the University of Georgia and the University of Alabama, leading to Butts’s resignation.
Meanwhile, Burnett approached the Saturday Evening Post with his story, which the Post acquired and rushed to print. On March 23, 1963, the Post published: “The Story of a College Football Fix: A Shocking Report of How Wally Butts and ‘Bear’ Bryant Rigged a Game Last Fall,” written by Frank Graham, Jr. with support from Atlanta sportswriter Furman Bisher. The edition with this article sold six million copies and ignited a firestorm, including investigations conducted by the attorneys general of Georgia and Alabama and libel lawsuits filed by Butts and Bryant against the Post (the latter’s second libel suit against the magazine in two years, both of which involved Bisher).
After a few months of preparations, the Butts lawsuit went to trial in August 1963. For about two weeks, each side argued their case, calling a host of witnesses to the stand, including the presidents of the University of Georgia and University of Alabama, the head football coach of the University of Georgia, players from both teams who competed in the 1962 Alabama-Georgia game, as well as the central figures in case – Burnett, Bryant, and Butts. After intense scrutiny of the character of Burnett and Butts, particularly their fiscal situations, the events surrounding the overhead phone call, the details of the game, the internal and state-level investigations of the incident, and the writing and publication of the article, the jury took only three hours to reach its verdict in favor of Butts. Along with finding Curtis Publishing Company guilty of libel, the jury awarded Butts $60,000 in general damages and $3 million in punitive damages. During the appeal process, the judge reduced punitive damages from $3 million to $400,000. Curtis Publishing Company lost two appeal attempts: the first in 1965 from the U.S. Court of Appeals; and the second in a plurality decision with an adjoining appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967.
Sumner correctly observes the greatest weakness in the defense’s strategy: no one from Curtis Publishing Company appeared in person to defend the article’s content or editorial decisions. The prosecutor and his assistant read Graham’s deposition in court, establishing that Graham did not have Burnett’s notes of the Butts-Bryant conversation when he wrote the article, the inaccuracy of some of the article, that Bisher contributed quotes that were later disputed, and that the editorial staff sensationalized the story. The prosecution then convinced the jury that the Post was guilty of “libelous per se,” the lower standard which assumes the article was libelous on its face (p. 84-85), through questioning the facts of the article, by arguing that the Post’s reporting did not follow basic journalistic standards, suggesting there was a conflict of interest with Bisher, and expressing the editors’ intent.
The defense raised an important issue that should have received more attention both in Butts’s case and in future academic studies: the specter of gambling in college football. Sumner relates Butts’s financial situation (or lack thereof) and his close friendship with Frank Scoby, a beer distributor based in Chicago with known ties to gambling rings, as a possible motivation for Butts relating inside information to Bryant. This relationship along with Scoby’s business connections with other coaches, including Bryant and Frank Leahy of Notre Dame, merits a deeper investigation.
To his credit and perhaps to the detriment of the book, Sumner fulfills the promise that his position would become apparent in his retelling of the case. He is clearly sympathetic to the Post’s reporting of the incident and its assertion that Butts and Bryant conspired to fix the 1962 Alabama-Georgia game. As the book progresses, Sumner’s bias surfaces in word choice and sourcing. He is particularly hostile towards University of Alabama president Frank Rose and Bryant. For example, Sumner frames a letter from March 6, 1963, written by President Rose to University of Georgia president O. C. Aderhold, as a smoking-gun of sorts that proves collusion between Butts and Bryant (p. 52-53). Throughout the rest of the book any mention of it is accompanied by the descriptors: “controversial” and “incriminating.” While passages in the letter may raise doubts, this reviewer was left with the impression that it was more of a rushed message written confidentially from one university president to another instead of an official response to a serious accusation. For all of the attention Sumner places on Rose and Bryant, archival sources from the University of Alabama are noticeably absent.
Overall, Sumner presents a readable yet imperfect account of Butts v. Curtis Publishing Company and the events surrounding it. The book’s organization and prose allow for an easy flow through the case, but the lack of a clearly stated thesis, combined with the author’s word choice, conjecture, and sourcing, muddles his narrative. It also suffers from poor editing. Numerous typos, repetition of information (often within a paragraph), and errors appear all too frequently. One such error – the misidentification of Ralph “Shug” Jordan as Alabama coach instead of Auburn – will no doubt annoy an entire state (p. 31). Sumner relegates any analysis of the broader impact of the case to the final chapter and then leans heavily on the works of others, most notably Dr. Sarah K. Fields. Fumbled Call would be most appropriate for those with a knowledge of the subject who are interested in a quick read through the courtroom procedure, but it should not be considered the last word on the matter.
Michael T. Wood teaches sport-related courses as an instructor in the Department of American Studies at the University of Alabama. His research focuses primarily on American football played between teams from the U.S. South and Havana in the first half of the twentieth century. You can contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.