OAKLAND, Calif. — The NCAA had its pick of hundreds of top officials from its Division I membership base who could lay out its case for the continued integration of academics and athletics. It decided on Christine Plonsky, and, for a couple of reasons, that choice would become an interesting one.
First, as the women’s athletic director at the University of Texas who oversees many of the school’s sponsorship and media contracts, Plonsky suddenly had marched the country’s most notorious cash cow onto the witness stand of the Ed O’Bannon v. NCAA antitrust class-action trial. This is the Texas that is paying its new football coach, Charlie Strong, $5 million a year and compensating Louisville $4.37 million for taking Strong; the Texas that shook the nation and sprung conference realignment into high gear by creating the Longhorn Network; the Texas that brings in so much revenue ($165 million last year) that it boasts a $45 million reserve.
So, the Longhorns entered the ring, and, as if that didn’t raise the stakes in the United States Courthouse Tuesday afternoon, how about this? Before the O’Bannon lawsuit was conceived, Plonsky had served on a NCAA presidential task force headed by then-Penn State president Graham Spanier that closely examined the implications of the commercialization of college sports and the use of athletes’ names, images and likenesses, and her correspondences would be open to discovery by the plaintiffs if she testified.
Correspondences like the one attorney Bill Isaacson immediately highlighted as he began his cross-examination of Plonsky — an email from then-Big 12 Conference commissioner Dan Beebe to the league’s board of directors in July 2009, a month after O’Bannon had filed his suit, that reveals that Beebe was concerned about the implications of the perception that they were exploiting athletes.
Plonsky responded to Beebe that, if the use of their NILs in EA Sports video games was an issue, it also could be in TV broadcasts.
Isaacson then brought up another correspondence, a lengthy email from Plonsky to Beebe that read, in part: “I view these cases as being the result of the entitlement attitude we’ve created in our revenue sports. We now have threatening [student-athletes] — many of whom, based on grad rates of the ’80s and ’90s, sucked a whole lot off the college athletics pipe — and now want to buckle the system at the knees at the expense of today’s [student-athletes].”
Plonsky spent her direct testimony explaining the ways in which the athletic department supported its athletes — to the tune of about $65,000 per student each year, according to a document meant to encourage donors to give to the Longhorn Foundation — but now she was on the hot seat.
“What you have been advocating is that avoiding a sense of entitlement is the reason for the NCAA rules at issue in this case,” Isaacson said. “That’s your position.”
“Entitlement indicates that you desire something that you maybe haven’t earned,” Plonsky said. “That’s contrary to the experience of building a person through regimen and discipline and through activity and through buy-in of representing an organization and a team concept and engaging in whatever the framework is that you agreed to.”
“Exactly,” Isaacson said. “So your view is that athletes are asking for something they haven’t earned, going against what they consented to.”
“That’s a part of it, but it’s not all of it,” she said.
Plonsky, a former college basketball player at Kent State, said she had learned not to feel entitled early in life, and now she was making about $360,000 a year to help mentor the athletes at Texas. Her opinion, formed during more than two decades in Austin, was that there needed to remain a clear dividing line in regard to athlete compensation: If it ever rose above the grant-in-aid scholarship, they would be professionals, which would be bad for Texas and all colleges.
In 2006-07, Plonsky was a part of a group study conducted by the NCAA that began looking into the use of NILs. Isaacson detailed a January 2007 meeting in Orlando with some of the organization’s business partners that included Cingular Wireless, EA Sports, Nike, CBS and ESPN all letting it be known that they wanted less restrictive rules. EA Sports, for instance, wanted to be able to use the college players’ actual names and images.
“We cannot exploit individual student-athletes, but it is not clear what exploitation is…” then-NCAA president Myles Brand said at the meeting. “We don’t want a student-athlete holding a phone or a bag of chips.”
In late 2008, the NCAA’s presidential task force was approaching the time to make its recommendations. Isaacson pulled up an email written by Elizabeth Altmaier, Iowa’s faculty athletics representative who was on the task force with Plonsky and had copied her, among others. Altmaier said, “I remain committed to the idea of having some return financially to the student-athletes themselves.”
Isaacson showed an email from Spanier, who would later resign from Penn State in the midst of the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal, to NCAA official David Berst that said: “For the record, Dave, I disagree strongly with her idea that we compensate athletes for the use of their images. I would not tout this in the report at all, not even a hint of the possibility.”
Altmaier, reached by phone Tuesday night, confirmed Isaacson’s portrayal of the events. She said her recommendation was ignored and that the task force decided the status quo was best. For her part, she said she was not advocating a pay-for-play model but the redistribution of revenues to the benefit of the athletes for things like increased testing for concussions and helping those who went professional and did not finish their education to come back and complete their degrees. Even those suggestions, she said, did not stick. Six months later, O’Bannon filed his lawsuit that now threatens the entire system. Altmaier, who no longer works with the NCAA, said she has changed her opinion in the past five years. She thinks athletes should have control over how their NILs are used.
“They were resistant to change,” Altmaier said. “They did not understand the potential risk.”
J. Brady McCollough: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @BradyMcCollough.