The NCAA has been around so long, has so much cash, has so many friends in high places, has shaped the public mind so effectively about its need to exist, that it's hard to imagine it won't always exist. Then an unexpected moment of blinding clarity comes along that shakes the very foundation of that notion, and suggests the end is not just near -- that the end, actually, is here.
That moment presented itself last Thursday in the Oakland courtroom of U.S. District Court Judge Claudia Wilken, as she listened to testimony in what has become known as the Ed O'Bannon case. On the stand to her lower left was Neal Pilson, witness for the NCAA, a former CBS television executive who was there to say that without amateurism, many fans would turn away from college sports.
Skeptical, the lawyer for the plaintiffs read Pilson a quote from the writings of the late Paul "Bear" Bryant, in which the legendary University of Alabama coach observed in retirement, "I used to go along with the idea that football players on scholarship were student athletes, which is what the NCAA calls them, meaning student first and athlete second. We were kidding ourselves, trying to make it more palatable to the academicians. We don't have to say that, and we shouldn't. At the level we play, the boy is really an athlete first and a student second."
That was a win for the plaintiffs, just getting that in the court record. But then it got better.
The lawyer, Bill Isaacson, asked Pilson if he thought such an opinion has an impact on the affection that Crimson Tide fans have for their team, and more broadly, television ratings for games.
Pilson bristled, responding, "We're talking about the strongest possible school in terms of pro football. I read what Bear says, but I -- I think, frankly, the University of Alabama football advocates follow their team win or lose, paying them or not."
You read that right. The court transcript did not get it wrong. Pilson called Bama a pro team.
A couple of us reporters looked at each other to confirm what we thought we had just heard, before tweeting. For me, confirmation came in the form of the mass shifting of posteriors in courtroom seats after the verboten word fell from Pilson's expert mouth, an audible mash-up of doomsday nerves at the NCAA table of lawyers and restrained glee on the plaintiffs' side.
Pilson's choice of word could have been chalked up as inadvertent -- except it seemed the right one based on the testimony provided to Wilken. She heard from former Alabama receiver Tyrone Prothro about the NFL-quality workout areas and locker room/resort spa that serve the team's players. She saw the video game avatar that was created based on Prothro's physical and other characteristics. She learned that schools at the center of the college sports entertainment industry, like Alabama, derive more revenue than many sports franchises that declare themselves professional. That even former NCAA president Myles Brand tacitly abandoned ship in 2006, saying in his annual speech, "Amateur defines the participants, not the enterprise."
The idea might fly with member universities. It's hard to see how it flies under antitrust law.