By Helen Cristophi/Courthouse News
OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) – The University of Wisconsin’s chancellor testified in a federal bench trial in Oakland Monday her school may eliminate athletic scholarships or dismantle its athletic programs entirely if a federal judge does away with the NCAA’s caps on compensation to student athletes.
Rebecca Blank, chancellor for the University of Wisconsin’s flagship campus in Madison, said the school is considering the two options because paying student athletes above the cost of attendance to play sports wouldn’t comport with its “educational mission,” which treats amateur competition as a component of a rigorous education.
“Changing the amateur nature of that will fundamentally change whether this fits into our educational mission and cause us to reevaluate whether these are programs we want to run,” Blank testified. “We’re not interested in professional sports; we’re interested in student athletes.”
Three classes of 53,000 current and former Division I football and men’s and women’s basketball players are trying to convince U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken to eliminate the NCAA’s restrictions on student athlete compensation.
They reason the association’s individual conferences will enact their own compensation caps to preserve amateurism in college sports, which is valued by many fans and believed to be a significant revenue driver.
But the NCAA says that more likely, wealthier schools would begin offering potential team members “millions of dollars” to play for them, essentially turning those players into professional athletes.
Revenues from college sports would shrink in the absence of pay limits, it predicts, because fans who value amateurism would stop buying tickets to games and television networks would pay conferences less money to broadcast games featuring students getting professional-grade pay.
On Monday, Blank said if the 14 schools in the Big Ten Conference, of which the University of Wisconsin-Madison is a member, don’t agree on what to do if pay caps are eliminated, the conference would split apart.
Alternatively, she said, the conference’s members could unanimously agree to eliminate athletic scholarships, similar to the Ivy League, an NCAA conference comprised of eight private universities in the Northeastern United States that offers financial aid to students, including athletes, only on the basis of financial need.
Blank, who as university chancellor is also an officer of the Big Ten, said based on her conversations with alumni and donors, she believes the popularity of her school’s sports teams would drop if student athletes were paid more money.
“I think the support of our alumni for the students would be less. My support…would be less,” she said. Later, she said she would oppose loosening pay restrictions at the conference level.
On cross-examination, however, Blank conceded she hadn’t studied what would happen if the restrictions are relaxed.
She also acknowledged surveys showing Division I student athletes spend about 40 hours per week on sports and get less than six hours of sleep per night during the season.
Lawyers for the student athletes, led by Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro attorney Steve Berman, have tried throughout the trial to justify more athlete pay by showing that playing college sports requires as much time per week as a full-time job.
Also testifying Monday, American Athletic Conference Commissioner Michael Aresco said eliminating compensation caps would decrease consumer demand for college sports. A former executive at ESPN and CBS Sports, Aresco said television ratings for college games increased during his tenure because fans value amateurism.
“We had a strong feeling that people were watching college sports because of the college athletes competing, and the ratings prove that, the ratings were always strong,” said Aresco.
Asked by Judge Wilken whether he or the networks had studied the cause behind the increased ratings, Aresco said they had not.
Aresco also acknowledged on cross-examination the contracts he negotiated to broadcast college games didn’t include provisions voiding them if the NCAA eliminated its compensation caps.
Aresco was nonetheless adamant that relaxing pay caps would hurt consumer demand for college sports.
“I see the value of having college sports, the college experience,” he said. “The money would intrude on college sports.”
The case stretches back to 2014, when former Clemson University football player Martin Jenkins sued the NCAA and its conferences for anti-competitive conduct and an injunction eliminating caps on compensation and benefits.
The following year, the Ninth Circuit held in a similar case – O’Bannon v. NCAA – that member schools need not compensate athletes above the cost of attendance.
In response, the NCAA relaxed its rules to allow schools to compensate athletes up to the cost of attendance. Many athletes also receive federal Pell Grants and student assistance funds, pushing their compensation above the cost of attendance.
Trial continues Tuesday.