NCAA President Defends Amateurism in College Sports

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Watch Money and March Madness, FRONTLINE’s 2011 investigation into the big business of college sports.

The federal courthouse in Oakland, Calif. was packed on Thursday as NCAA President Mark Emmert took the stand in the O’Bannon v. NCAA antitrust case, in which a class of college athletes is seeking access to television revenues that are generated from their games.

As he told FRONTLINE three years ago in Money and March Madness, Emmert rejects the idea of paying college athletes, arguing that it goes against one of the NCAA’s core values: that athletes are regular students.

“The most fundamental notion is that student-athletes are not paid professionals,” he said today in court. “They are students who are playing for their school. They are not there because they’re being paid.”

In his testimony, Emmert explained that part of the rationale for the NCAA’s creation was to prohibit professionals from taking the field for various schools. Amateurism is part of the appeal of college athletics, he maintained, noting that the Louisiana State University Tigers can fill a bigger stadium than the New Orleans Saints.

Throughout the trial, now nearing the end of its second week, the NCAA has argued that there are “pro-competitive benefits” for having rules in place that prohibit the compensation of athletes, including high-level football and basketball players who bring revenue to their schools and the NCAA through lucrative television contracts. Paying athletes — whether through a salary for individual performances on the field, or revenues from sales of athletes’ names, images and likenesses — would fundamentally alter the nature of college sport, fan interest, and the ability of athletes and non-athletes to commingle on campus, the NCAA argues.

In court today, Emmert objected to making funds available to revenue-producing athletes even after graduation, saying they would be able to use the promise of those funds to their advantage, for example, to secure a car loan.

“It’s payment for playing regardless if it’s paid today or paid tomorrow,” he said.

Through a series of documents — including e-mails to and from NCAA officials, reports by NCAA task forces, pictures of athletes and corporate logos, and speeches made by NCAA presidents — plaintiffs’ attorney William Isaacson attempted to show that the association has been aware of escalating commercialism in college athletics in recent years, and that the NCAA and its member schools did little to stem that tide.

In a lengthy exchange, Isaacson questioned Emmert about an email he received just prior to taking over as president from veteran NCAA employee Wallace Renfro. The email spelled out a number of issues Emmert would face as president. Renfro wrote that commercialization “is going to be one of the more difficult issues in the near term.” He added, “There is a general sense that intercollegiate athletics is as thoroughly commercialized as professional sports,” and noted that “blurred” lines exist when players are put in “close proximity to commercial products.”

Emmert, who characterized Renfro as a “provocateur,” said he did not reply to the email. He said of its contents, “He was making the statement, from my interpretation, as to what he thought were the beliefs of some people.”

Isaacson showed photographs of football players at postgame press conferences in front of banners emblazoned with corporate logos and at tables with specific brands of water. “It’s fine under the rules,” Emmert responded, though he added, “It’s not something I’m personally comfortable with.”

Emmert noted that under his leadership the NCAA decided to end its relationship with Electronic Arts by refusing to license its logo for college sports video games. The video games, which were the subject of a settlement with a separate class of plaintiffs just as this litigation began, were not in violation of the rules surrounding the use of player names, images and likenesses, in Emmert’s view.

“It seemed inappropriate that we be in the enterprise if there was controversy surrounding it,” Emmert said, adding that he told his staff to “extract ourselves from that relationship” at the first opportunity.

Emmert also addressed the issue of athletic scholarships. Lawyers for the plaintiffs have argued throughout this case that such scholarships, capable of being awarded and revoked by the coach, are already essentially “pay for play.” Emmert disagreed, saying that the scholarships are used to cover academic expenses, therefore do not contradict NCAA amateurism rules.

Emmert is expected to take the stand again on Friday.

Zachary Stauffer, a contributor to various FRONTLINE projects, is based at the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley.

Photo: NCAA President Mark Emmert speaks at a news conference Thursday, April 4, 2013, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
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