Ex-Alabama WR Tyrone Prothro: 'I want to see change for the future'
OAKLAND, Calif. -- Three years after suffering a gruesome career-ending injury in 2005, former Alabama star Tyrone Prothro wrote a book, Catch & Hold. He wanted to include some action shots from his playing career, but upon contacting a university photographer he learned he'd have to buy the images from the school's website for $10 apiece. So, he didn't include them.
"Of course I could have purchased some pictures, but I didn't feel I should have to pay any kind of money for my own photos," Prothro said on Wednesday shortly after telling that story as a witness in the ongoing Ed O'Bannon v. NCAA antitrust trial. "I didn't think it was fair at all."
O'Bannon, the former UCLA basketball star, served as the plaintiff's opening witness on Monday, but in many ways Prothro is a more relatable spokesman for the issues at the center of this seminal case. He did not win a national championship. He did not go on to play professionally and is currently an account manager for a Coca-Cola distributor. In 2005, however, just months before breaking both legs on a horrific freak play, the receiver made "The Catch," a spectacularly rare play that won that year's Pontiac Game Changing Performance award, earning his school $100,000 for its general scholarship fund.
Over the next year, Prothro watched "The Catch" replayed over and over in ads for the award with a Pontiac logo stamped on the highlight. Yet neither Pontiac nor the game broadcasters sought to compensate him for use of the image, because they didn't need to. If they had, Prothro, who had college eligibility remaining, couldn't have accepted it.
Even three years later, he learned, he still did not control the rights to his own images as an Alabama football player. That's why he signed on as a co-plaintiff in a lawsuit seeking to lift the NCAA's longstanding ban on compensating student-athletes for use of their names, images and likenesses.
"I want to see change for the future," he said. "I believe I should have some say over my image being used somewhere. Right now that's not the case."
Prothro's roughly 75-minute turn on the stand on Wednesday was brief and easily digestible compared to Stanford professor of economics Roger Noll's three-day, nearly 11-hour testimony. Noll, an antitrust expert, laid out the plaintiff's various legal arguments. Prothro put a face on them. He also provided the comedic high point of the trial to date when, after testifying he won an ESPY for the "The Catch," Judge Claudia Wilken asked earnestly: "A what? ... Can you spell that?"
Plaintiffs' attorney Bill Isaacson not only asked Prothro about the catch, but also showed a screen shot of an Alabama player's avatar from EA Sports' now-defunct NCAA Football game wearing Prothro's No. 4 jersey and bearing his exact height and weight.
"That's a picture of me," Prothro said.
Just like the plaintiffs did during O'Bannon's testimony, Isaacson asked Prothro to describe his football time commitments in college, which of course were far lengthier (30 to 40 hours a week) than the time he spent on academics (12 to 15 hours in class, plus eight hours a week of mandatory study halls). One of the NCAA's primary defenses in this case is compensating players would ruin the necessary balance between athletics and academics; the plaintiffs are taking every opportunity to show that such an imbalance already exists.
"The NCAA's fundamental position is that college football or college basketball is a hobby," said Isaacson. "Tyrone, like Ed, showed that it's not a hobby."
Prothro also testified that despite receiving a full scholarship, he had to take out $10,000 in student loans to cover remaining expenses. That debt remains today, he said.
NCAA lead attorney Glenn Pomerantz was mostly gentle during his cross-examination of Prothro, but he did provide a window into the organization's defense. He asked if Prothro enjoyed numerous intangible benefits while at Alabama, such as playing in front of 100,000 fans and partaking in the program's rich tradition. Prothro agreed and noted that use of Alabama's expansive weight room, available only to athletes, was another benefit. He said his coaches did stress the importance of academics.
On the subject of Prothro's famous play, however, Pomerantz asked whether others contributed to "The Catch." Prothro initially replied with a chuckle, "I mean, who else did it?" Upon follow-ups, though, he agreed the play wasn't possible without his quarterback and offensive linemen. Was the lawyer suggesting that Prothro doesn't own the rights to the image because it wasn't his individual play?
As for EA, Prothro agreed upon questioning that other avatars in the game had the same pixilated face as his, and other Alabama players have previously worn No. 4. Would the NCAA still have you believe that the player wasn't Prothro -- even after EA settled this and another case over likeness rights for a combined $50 million?
Either way, the plaintiffs ultimately have to prove far more than the identity of a video game image to demonstrate that the NCAA is a price-fixing monopoly, which is why most of the witnesses over the next three weeks will be economists and television executives, not former power forwards and wide receivers.
Still, there's no predicting which moments in the trial will ultimately sway Wilken's decision. One could well be the story of a fallen football star having to pay $10 for his own picture.