In O’Bannon trial, NCAA officials give amateur-hour performance


In this April 6, 2014, file phot, NCAA President Mark Emmert answers a question at a news conference in Arlington, Texas. Testifying in a landmark antitrust lawsuit filed against his organization, Emmert said Thursday, June 19, 2014, he believes there is a clear difference between the proposal to pay athletes a few thousand more dollars a year and giving them the equivalent of a salary. (David J. Phillip/AP)
John Feinstein
Columnist June 23

Yet another week of testimony is underway in the trial of Ed O’Bannon v. the NCAA, but the case of college administrators, and so far the position being taken by college sports administrators is this: “We shouldn’t pay athletes because we don’t want to.”

That was the takeway last week from three days of amusing and infuriating testimony from NCAA President Mark Emmert, Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany and Texas women’s Athletic Director Christine Plonsky as part of the NCAA’s defense against O’Bannon, a former UCLA basketball player who is claiming that he and other athletes whose likenesses were used in a sports video game from which NCAA schools profited should be paid.

John Feinstein is a sports columnist for The Washington Post and also provides commentary for the Golf Channel and National Public Radio. View Archive

Emmert, who is reportedly paid $1.67 million annually, claimed that if football and men’s basketball players were paid in any way, shape or form, fans would lose interest in college athletics. When Judge Claudia Wilken, who is clearly skeptical about the NCAA’s claims, asked him if that would be the case if a trust fund was set up so players could be paid after graduation, Emmert insisted that it would.

Seriously? What rock has this man been living under?

The NCAA sold its soul to corporate America long ago. Television networks decide when games will start; they set matchups between schools; and, more recently, they own bowl games. When it’s not kowtowing to television, the NCAA is completely beholden to what it euphemistically calls its “corporate champions”; this past March, a Wisconsin basketball player walking into a closed practice in an empty arena was stopped by a security guard because he was carrying a bottle of water produced by a company other than the tournament’s official sponsor.

Yes, really.

And yet, Emmert, Delany and Plonsky declared on the stand that college football and basketball are amateur sports. Plonsky actuall said this: “I don’t believe our university would approve of an activity where a segment of our student-athlete population was professionalized.”

Plonsky has worked at Texas for 26 years. Does she believe for one second that Texas football and basketball players aren’t professionalized? Has she seen the Longhorns’ locker rooms? Has she not been on the charter airplanes they fly on? Has she not dealt with the corporate sponsors who pay the school millions of dollars to be associated with the the athletes’ performances?

Emmert actually claimed at one point that, if forced to pay players at all, “most” NCAA schools would go to “the Division III model.” That would mean no athletic scholarships; no games on TV; no billion-dollar TV contracts, no more stadiums or arenas named after banks or communications giants. Emmert is fortunate that one can’t be charged with perjury for expressing an opinion — no matter how outrageous — because that’s a flat-out lie.

Delany, the Darth Vader of college athletics (both menacing and brilliant), followed Emmert and claimed the Rose Bowl would go away if his schools had to share some of the $25 million each received in revenue from league-sponsored ventures.

“These games are owned by the institution,” Delany said. “And the notion of paying athletes for participation is foreign to the notion of amateurism.”

He stopped one step short of saying that the so-called “amateur” athletes also are owned by the institutions.

In the end, this is all about the bottom line for the NCAA and its member schools. They simply do not want to share the money they make with the athletes who allow them to make that money.

Neither O’Bannon nor the Northwestern football players who filed a petition to form a union are asking to be paid directly by the schools. No one has asked to be paid any sort of salary. The Northwestern athletes requested the right to negotiate on issues like practice hours; how much hitting is allowed in practice; catastrophic-injury insurance and the ability to be on scholarship after their eligibility is up. O’Bannon and other plaintiffs are asking to be paid only when their school or conference makes extra revenue because of their performance or their ability to generate specific money — as in the sale of merchandise associated directly with an athlete or his likeness.

And while the NCAA drones continue to claim their athletes are “amateurs,’ it is worth remembering that those so-called amateurs work on essentially one-year, one-way contracts. Athletic scholarships are for one year; the school decides whether to renew them each year. If a coach doesn’t want a player to return for any reason — and most of the time it is because he’s decided he needs to recruit someone better — the player has no say in the matter.

When they’re told they likely won’t play in games, most players transfer. But if a player wants to stay even after he’s told he won’t play, he may still lose his scholarship. On the other hand, if a player decides to leave, he has to sit out a year before he can play again and the school may restrict his transfer options.

Does that sound fair and equitable?

Finally, it’s worth noting that Emmert, Delany and Plonsky all insisted on constantly referring to those who make millions for NCAA schools as “student-athletes.” Emmert even went so far as to say that middle schoolers are often called “student-athletes.” Raise your hand if you’ve ever heard a seventh-grader called that.

The reason Emmert, Delany and all their various minions use “student-athlete” is to perpetuate the myth that the athletes who fill their stadiums, arenas and wallets are somehow attending their colleges in search of a Rhodes Scholarship. Let’s be honest: The only places most athletes want to go after they finish playing in college is the NFL or the NBA.

There’s nothing wrong with that. What’s wrong is the mendacious hypocrisy of those drawing six- and seven-figure salaries to run college sports claiming that those pursuits are “amateur” enterprises.

For more columns by John Feinstein, go to washingtonpost.com/feinstein.

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