O'Bannon Trial: Cash stream rolls right by the athletes

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OAKLAND, Calif. -- When Tyrone Prothro sprinted down the middle of the field at Alabama's Bryant-Denny Stadium Sept. 10, 2005, he never could have imagined his "go route" eventually would lead him here, sitting to the left of Judge Claudia Ann Wilken as a witness in a trial that fundamentally could change college sports forever.

"Can we look at Exhibit 2459, 'The Catch,' " asked Bill Isaacson, one of the O'Bannon v. NCAA plaintiffs' attorneys.

And there it was, a clip that Crimson Tide fans from coast to coast won't let Prothro forget, playing live Wednesday afternoon on the fourth floor of the United States Courthouse. Even now, in this stale setting, he smiled watching his 21-year-old self catch the pass, trap it between his hands and the Southern Mississippi player that stood between him and the football and hold onto it as they plunged into the turf.

"He's making a blind catch!" an ESPN2 announcer bellowed from speakers into the court room.

"It happened so fast," Prothro would say.

His wild ride was just getting started. The next week, he saw a television ad marketing Pontiac's "Game Changing Performance of the Week" showing the clip of his miraculous grab. Of course, he won. Nobody was going to beat that. Then, Pontiac gave the University of Alabama $10,000 to go toward its general scholarship fund, and, in the coming weeks, Prothro noticed that the company continued to use his catch in its ad. He thought it was great, because, hey, who wouldn't want to be on TV?

Isaacson chose not to include another popular clip of Prothro that was shot by CBS three weeks later in his questioning, and it was likely for the better. On Oct. 1, 2005, Alabama was playing Florida at Bryant-Denny Stadium, and Prothro broke open down the sideline. As he came up with the ball in the end zone, he landed awkwardly on his left leg.

"Caught!" CBS announcer Verne Lundquist screamed.

No, it was dropped. And then Prothro was holding that leg, which looked like it had been snapped in two. CBS showed several replays. It was gruesome.

"Ugh, oh boy ... " Lundquist said, the gravity sinking in.

Tyrone Prothro would never play football again, his NFL dreams crushed in an instant.

Later that year, Pontiac would award him the "Game Changing Performance of the Year," and the university would get another $100,000 to help provide scholarships for kids who needed the help. Prothro liked that, but it didn't change the fact that he had taken out loans totaling $10,000 to help pay for expenditures his scholarship didn't cover -- loans he still, at 30, barely has begun to pay off.

Prothro was the second plaintiff that the O'Bannon attorneys have called to the stand after O'Bannon himself, and not many players could present a more compelling argument for the existence of a market for the licensing of names, images and likenesses in live TV broadcasts, rebroadcasts and game clips -- a contention that NCAA attorneys have pushed hard against in the trial's first three days.

Prothro was involved in two of the most dramatic plays of the 2005 college football season, and they would be played over and over. Pontiac continued to use the clip of "The Catch" as its poster child for a "Game Changing Performance" into the next season as Prothro battled through what would be the first of 10 surgeries on his leg. He never saw a penny from Pontiac for the use of that image.

Surprisingly, he is not bitter. Alabama paid for his surgeries, the final one coming in 2010, and the school found a way to put him on another kind of scholarship when he was no longer an athlete. He graduated in 2008 with a degree in General Studies and now works as an account manager at Coca-Cola Refreshments in Tuscaloosa, where people still talk to him about his catch -- and his injury -- all the time.

Prothro got involved with this lawsuit because he wants to see change. In 2008, he was putting out a book called "Catch and Hold," and he wanted to use pictures that the university had taken of him during his playing career. He was told that it would cost him $10 a picture, and he chose not to buy any.

"I didn't feel I should have to pay any kind of money to purchase my own photos," Prothro said. "I didn't think that was fair at all."

He does not know what the change would look like or how it would work exactly. That's for other people to decide.

"I don't want to change the way [college football] is run," Prothro said, "but I feel like there definitely should be something that's fair, for everybody. I think the players should be involved in some kind of way."

J. Brady McCollough: bmccollough@post-gazette.com and Twitter @BradyMcCollough.


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