The NCAA’s plan for Tuesday in the Ed O’Bannon trial was to give Judge Claudia Wilken a detailed look at an ideal combination of athletics and academics at the University of Texas. The plan also included finishing an aggressive attack on the players’ expert witness, who said college football and men’s basketball were no longer amateur sports and had become professional.
It was a perfectly good plan. Had it worked, it could have provided powerful support for the NCAA’s claims that a ban on player pay helps integrate athletes into the academic community and that it maintains the organization’s ideal of amateurism.
But as Christine Plonsky, the women’s director of athletics at Texas, described in the loftiest of terms how Texas connects its “student-athletes” to the values of higher education, she opened the door to a cross examination on her work on NCAA committees that considered the idea of allowing payments to players as a realistic possibility.
Paying players is not something the NCAA wants to recognize at any level of possibility, much less get the word out that it actually had been considered by top NCAA leaders in a task force that existed for four years. The organization has been trying to say that paying players is unthinkable; after Tuesday, the judge now knows NCAA leaders had actually been thinking about that very thing.
The thing is, that’s what comes of making the argument that you can be a little bit pregnant. You’ve got a significant part of the NCAA membership pushing for a player stipend – just a little taste, you know – at the same time the NCAA is trying to argue with a straight face that college players shouldn’t receive any compensation at all for their participation in sports beyond a scholarship. And that disconnect is at the heart of what makes O’Bannon a losing proposition for the schools and the NCAA.
If it wasn’t Christine Plonsky whom the plaintiffs’ lawyers used as a foil, it would be somebody else. Like Jim Delany or Mike Slive, for example.
“The litigation, that will take care of itself,” Slive said. “But in the area that we have the ability to act, we are acting. And we are acting on the basis that the student-athlete comes first. Maybe that hasn’t been the philosophy over the last 20 or 30 years, but it is our philosophy today.”
Except it’s clear they don’t know where to draw the line – just that a line needs to be drawn somewhere. Because.
If the athletes deserve more benefits, at what point does anyone consider them professionalized?
“I don’t know how you viewed yourself, but when I was in college, I knew how I viewed myself,” Delany said. “I played basketball since I was eight years old. I viewed myself as an athlete. There’s nothing wrong with a person seeing himself as an athlete …
“That’s not inconsistent with being a full-time student and getting a degree …
“If you’re a dramatic arts major, do you view yourself as an actress or do you view yourself as a student? If I’m a painter, are you a painter or a student?”
That’s really the question of the times: Whether the tradeoff is even possible anymore at the highest levels — integrating that free athletic scholarship into a legitimate educational experience.
Delany asked the same question a different way: “When did it change?”
Probably for good about the same time you saw real value in becoming the director of programming for an athletic conference, Jimbo.
The easy answer to his initial question is money, which has increased exponentially in the last couple of decades, mostly as a result of football TV contracts. One example: the 10 commissioners of the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision met Tuesday afternoon to discuss the College Football Playoff. For the right to televise the postseason tournament, ESPN will pay $7.2 billion over 12 years – and the vast majority of that will be divided among the Power Five conferences. That cash has fueled, among other things, an explosion in coaches’ and administrators’ salaries. Meanwhile, the players continue to receive scholarships.
This is why the NCAA’s lawyers looked dumb yesterday. It’s not their fault. It’s the hand they’ve been dealt by idiots who should have known better.