National Collegiate Athletic Association President Mark Emmert testified that paying student athletes would betray the organization’s core value of amateurism and damage the popular appeal of college sports.
“To convert college sport into professional sport would be tantamount to changing it into minor league sport and we know that minor league sports are not particularly successful,” he said today.
Emmert’s testimony capped the NCAA’s opposition to lifting a rule that bars college football and basketball players from sharing in the billions of dollars in licensing revenue generated by their games, mostly through television contracts. Ex-NCAA athletes are challenging that rule in a nonjury trial that began last week in federal court in Oakland, California.
Under NCAA regulations that treat athletes as amateurs, they can be stripped of their scholarships and barred from playing if they accept payment. The NCAA had $912 million in total revenue last year, including $838 million from television, championships and marketing-rights fees, according to its financial statement.
The case is part of a movement by current and former college athletes to secure compensation, medical benefits and control over their images. U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken will decide the outcome. The trial is scheduled to end by June 27.
The plaintiffs, led by former University of California at Los Angeles basketball player Ed O’Bannon, who was in the courtroom for Emmert’s testimony, must prove the NCAA conspired to restrain the student players’ market for the use of their names, images and likenesses in violation of antitrust law.
Even if O’Bannon’s lawyers succeed in proving that, the NCAA might still prevail if it can show a pro-competitive justification for its policies against royalties for student-athletes, William Isaacson, an attorney for the athletes, said outside court.
To try to make that justification, Emmert testified that paying student athletes for use of their names and images would damage amateurism and hurt the competitive balance among schools and prompt schools to quit Division I competition.
“If you move to an environment of pay for play, then the student decision of which college to go to is going to be driven by that pay,” he said. “Money is money.”
On cross-examination, Isaacson got Emmert to acknowledge that he doesn’t consider it to be commercial exploitation to have student athletes appear on posters or press conferences that include corporate logos.
Isaacson displayed 2014 poster celebrating the 75th anniversary of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, known as March Madness, with images of players and logos of Coca-Cola, AT&T and Capital One. He also showed a poster of Iowa State University football players entering the stadium with a Nike swoosh logo over their heads.
Emmert said that under NCAA rules, use of logos may “only be in conjunction with promoting that event,” not a particular player.
Isaacson asked him about comments by former long-time NCAA official Wally Renfro, a vice president and chief policy officer, that student athletes are commercially exploited.
Emmert, who earlier in his testimony called Renfro a “provocateur,” told Isaacson that Renfro “has strong opinions and they are his opinions.”
Asked specifically what he had done to curb commercial exploitation of athletes, Emmert pointed to his decision in 2013 not to renew licensing for Electronic Arts to produce college sports video games. He also cited the NCAA’s move to end ties with a website that linked athlete names to find specific jersey numbers for purchase.
O’Bannon, who was named most outstanding player of the 1995 Final Four, is featured in DVDs about UCLA games and the 1995 championships offered for sale by the NCAA, according to his complaint. He’s suing on behalf of a class of current and former players seeking to negotiate licensing deals for use of their images.
The case is In Re NCAA Student-Athlete Name and Likeness Licensing Litigation, 09-01967, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California (Oakland).