OAKLAND, Calif. — The future of college sports is up for grabs, and NCAA president Mark Emmert, the most powerful man in the whole burgeoning enterprise, was on the witness stand Thursday to make a case for the continued survival of the status quo his organization has doggedly defended for six decades.
The defense of amateurism had never looked like this, though, with its leader testifying in front of a federal judge in a United States Courthouse, with media and interested observers on both sides of the Ed O’Bannon v. NCAA antitrust class-action trial hanging on his every word, watching as Mr. Emmert held on tight to the tenets that brought him and his organization to this unmistakable fork in the road.
For the NCAA’s detractors, the fact that Mr. Emmert had to take an oath and deliver sworn testimony for five hours about the way his organization does business was a victory in itself. But Mr. Emmert didn’t spend much time talking about the present on Thursday. He was either forecasting a Doomsday scenario about a world in which big-time college football and basketball players were compensated for the use of their names, images and likenesses [NILs], or he was being drug through the NCAA’s long and muddy history of redefining amateurism in ways that benefited the organization.
What was Doomsday for Mr. Emmert? If Judge Claudia Ann Wilken granted the plaintiffs’ injunctive relief, if college athletes were allowed to profit from their NILs, they would no longer be amateurs, he said, and that would create chaos in the following ways:
* Some schools would be forced to drop out of Division I sports because they could not foot the bill.
* Those who decided to stay would be involved in a recruiting hustle that favored schools that offered the most compensation, and athletes would have to choose between sitting the bench at a big school while making money and getting more playing time at a lower-resource school.
* Because every school would no longer have to play by the same rules, national championships would not be considered fair, and so teams would not want to compete for them.
* Interest in college football and basketball would drop to minor-league levels because fans are drawn to the notion that they are cheering amateurs.
Basically, he said that everything the NCAA and its members have built over the past century would crumble.
“It provides a social glue that holds campuses together,” Mr. Emmert said. “It’s the reason many students choose to go to a school. They want to be part of that environment.”
To plaintiffs’ attorney Bill Isaacson, who cross-examined Mr. Emmert, these were all just unfounded opinions. Mr. Isaacson wanted to steer Mr. Emmert to the facts, and that meant a lengthy exploration of the history of the NCAA’s idea of amateurism, which is currently defined in its rule book as athletes participating in their sport as an “avocation” or hobby and being “protected from exploitation by professional and commercial enterprises.”
All NCAA presidents have had to define it at some point, and here was Mr. Emmert’s chance.
“Does amateurism mean that you’re just not paid?” Mr. Isaacson said.
“Yes,” Emmert said.
“Is there any definition of amateurism in the NCAA constitution or bylaws that says ‘Amateurism means you don’t get paid’?” Mr. Isaacson said.
“It’s been the interpretation of everyone who has been a part of the NCAA for 100 years,” Mr. Emmert said.
Mostly, though, Mr. Emmert tried to separate himself from his predecessors in the NCAA’s big chair. By introducing numerous documents, Mr. Isaacson attempted to show repeatedly that amateurism at any moment in the NCAA’s history was simply what the organization needed it to be.
Mr. Isaacson quoted from “Unsportsmanlike Conduct,” a book written by former NCAA president Walter Byers, who created the phrase “student-athlete” in the 1950s to protect the organization against workers‘ compensation litigation. In the book, Byers said, “This is not about amateurism. This is about who controls negotiations and gets the money.” Mr. Emmert said he did not agree with that statement and that Byers’ book was “irrelevant” to today’s issues.
Then there was a document that quoted former NCAA president Myles Brand saying, “Amateurism defines the participant, not the enterprise,” and Mr. Brand, who died in 2009, predicting numerous times during his tenure as president before Mr. Emmert that commercialization was approaching a crisis stage for the NCAA. Mr. Emmert said he did not know about Mr. Brand’s opinion.
Lastly, Mr. Isaacson presented an email from longtime NCAA senior advisor Wally Renfro to Mr. Emmert when he was taking over in 2010. Mr. Renfro warned Mr. Emmert of many challenges ahead, one of which was that outsiders felt the “notion that athletes are students is the great hypocrisy of intercollegiate athletics.” Mr. Emmert said he didn’t pay much attention to Mr. Renfro’s assertion and labeled Mr. Renfro, who is now retired, a “provocateur.”
Mr. Emmert will be back on the stand this morning, and he can expect more of the same as he continues to defend what the plaintiffs find indefensible.
“The NCAA’s defense against this antitrust case is 'We're entitled to protect amateurism,' ” Mr. Isaacson said after court adjourned for the day. “Amateurism is in the eye of the beholder, and if the public perceives it cynically, as the NCAA says in its documents, then I don’t think it stands up as a defense.”
J. Brady McCollough: firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @BradyMcCollough.