Fumbled Call

The Bear Bryant–Wally Butts Football Scandal That Split the Supreme Court and Changed American Libel Law

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About the Book

Atlanta insurance salesman George Burnett found himself at the center of a football scandal when he overheard a phone conversation between University of Georgia athletic director Wally Butts and University of Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. Butts seemed to be giving Bryant play formations that would help Alabama defeat Georgia 35-0 in the 1962 season opener.
When the Saturday Evening Post published Burnett’s story months later, Butts and Bryant successfully sued the magazine for libel. The case went to the Supreme Court where it was upheld in a landmark 5–4 decision that expanded the legal definition of “public figures.”
Referencing more than 3,000 pages of letters, depositions and trial transcripts, the author reveals new information about this scandal and its resulting trial.

About the Author(s)

David E. Sumner is a professor emeritus of journalism at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, where he taught for 25 years. He has written seven books.

Bibliographic Details

David E. Sumner
Format: softcover (6 x 9)
Pages: 234
Bibliographic Info: 12 photos, appendices, notes, bibliography, index
Copyright Date: 2018
pISBN: 978-1-4766-7141-3
eISBN: 978-1-4766-3234-6
Imprint: McFarland

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments v
Introduction 1
1. The Fumbled Telephone Call 5
2. The Enigmatic Life of Wally Butts 13
3. Bear Bryant: The Supercoach 25
4. The Whistleblower Talks 34
5. The University Investigates, Butts Resigns 43
6. The Saturday Evening Post Breaks the Story 54
7. The Governor and Attorney General Investigate 67
8. Pre-Trial Hearings Dominate the Summer 79
9. The Sports Trial of the Decade 87
10. Bolton and Griffith Testify Against Butts 98
11. More Coaches Testify 112
12. Bear Bryant Dazzles the Jury 125
13. Wally Butts Has His Day in Court 138
14. The University Presidents Testify 155
15. Attorneys Make Their Closing Arguments 164
16. The Jury Reaches a Verdict 173
17. Why Butts v. Curtis Publishing Matters 178
Appendix 1—George Burnett’s Notes, Transcribed 191
Appendix 2—Georgia Football Under Wally Butts, 1939–1960 192
Appendix 3—Affidavit of George Burnett 194
Appendix 4—“The Story of a College Football Fix” 197
Chapter Notes 205
Bibliography 219
Index 221

Book Reviews & Awards

  • “A very fascinating read… Sumner leaves the reader with a significant amount to contemplate from all angles in the case, allowing the reader to become highly engaged…provides a gripping commentary of what occurred in the trial…well worth a read”—Journal of Sport History
  • “One afternoon I was so engrossed in [reading this book] on a MARTA train, I forgot to get off at my home station, so Sumner must be doing something right.”—The Daily Report
  • “Capturing the history of one of the greatest controversies in SEC history is no easy task, but that’s something David E. Sumner accomplished in his latest nonfiction book Fumbled Call. Does an excellent job of providing extensive background on all the players involved…. Any historical fan of the SEC, regardless of your allegiance to school, will enjoy this great read that combines football, history, intrigue, courtroom drama, and the fiery passion that’s associated with the Southeastern Conference”—Saturday Down South
  • Fumbled Call provides a thorough factual accounting of a colorful story that demonstrates the way ordinary moments of everyday life can wind up unexpectedly intertwined with complex legal proceedings—and produce precedent-setting cases that live on and on as the standards that decide countless cases thereafter.”—Communications and Booknotes Quarterly
  • Fumbled Call is the fascinating tale of how an innocently captured conversation changed lives, livelihoods and the law of the land. A careful researcher with a flair for telling a story, David E. Sumner dodges the myths and runs down the truth, and the result is a courtroom drama about college sports, journalism and celebrity that should be of interest to all.”—Peter C. Canfield, Atlanta First Amendment attorney
  • “What do you get when mystery and scandal merges with college football legend? One hell of a book. Fumbled Call is Sherlock Holmes meets George Gipp. Riveting, spellbinding, unique.”—Jeff Pearlman, author of Gunslinger: The Remarkable, Improbable, and Iconic Life of Brett Favre and Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton