For five days in a Federal Court in Oakland, CA. lawyers for former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon and several former NCAA football players presented witnesses in their class action suit against the NCAA. The plaintiffs are alleging violations of antitrust laws - specifically price fixing - through NCAA rules that restrict players from sharing in the revenues gained from their images from television and video-games.
Tuesday the lawyers for the NCAA began to present their case, and their first witness was University of Texas Women's Athletics Director Chris Plonsky.
Plonsky gave compelling testimony regarding the mission of University Athletic Departments to educate student athletes while preserving their amateurism.
However, her very presence also allowed for the plaintiffs' attorneys to introduce evidence of the NCAA and its corporate partners concern over just how far they could go using a student athlete's name, image or likeness to make money.
Plonsky testified that Texas, with the largest athletic department budget in collegiate sports ($165 million), emphasizes "learning, experience and maturity," for its student athletes.
She added that "The essence of our work is to work with other people's children. They have just made the biggest decision of their lives - where to go to college - and we have a big responsibility...Education is life long, and sports are four years."
Plonsky also stated that Texas' commitment to education for its student athletes reaches back decades. Over 50 years ago, the late Darrell Royal was the first college football coach to hire an academic advisor for his players.
The NCAA, through Plonsky's and others testimony, is trying to make the case that limiting players compensation is not price fixing, but rather helping to keep student athletes an integral part of the entire student body.
All well and good.
Except that Plonsky's position at the University of Texas has put her at the forefront of the NCAA's efforts to market their sports, and by calling her to the stand, it allowed the plaintiffs' attorneys to bring into evidence many emails that paint the picture of an NCAA that has been working for years on plans to limit compensation to students whose images were used to market the games - while claiming that there was little or no market for such images.
Plonsky served on an NCAA Task Force back in 2008 that looked into the commercialization of players and teams. The emails from the task force work establishes that the NCAA has been working on the idea of some kind of compensation for players for years while continuing to argue that it was out of the question.
There was also a stream of emails from 2009 between Big 12 officials that looked at the ramifications of the O'Bannon lawsuit.
In one email to former Big 12 Commissioner Dan Beebe, Plonsky wrote:
"This is how I feel: if a [student-athlete] can sue the ncaa for these two things -- one of which (the ea sports [video] game) only uses school marks and names, not s-a names, then what's to prevent all players from suing us to get a piece of every broadcast rights fee -- since clearly we use their names and images in those telecasts?" Plonsky wrote. "If I were cbs and espn, I'd be staring hard at these cases and maybe not being too excited about a media rights re-up w[ith] the ncaa."
She then added,
"I view these cases as a result of the entitlement attitude we've created in our revenue sports. We now have threatening s-a's (student athletes) -- many of whom, based on grad rates in the 80s and 90s, sucked a whole lot off the college athletics pipe -- and now want to buckle the system at the expense of today's s-a's."
The NCAA argument basically comes down to their belief that the limits it imposes on its athlete's compensation are not an antitrust violation because they promote the integration of the amateur ideal of education and athletics.
The plaintiffs' argue that the players are athletes first and foremost and have little in common with members of the student body, including the right to market themselves outside of the scholarship compensation.
However Judge Claudia Wilken rules this is just step one in a process that will probably end up in front of the Supreme Court.