O'Bannon v. NCAA, day six: Determining whether big-time athletes are students first

Publish date:

Ex-Vanderbilt LB Chase Garnham (36) said he was "an athlete first, a student second." (Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

Chase Garnham

OAKLAND, Calif. -- The plaintiffs in Ed O’Bannon v. NCAA took direct aim at the association’s stated purpose on Monday as attorneys tried to paint big-time college football and men’s basketball players as athletes who happen to students. The NCAA’s preferred narrative states that the players are students who happen to be athletes. In fact, it’s the association’s stated reason for existing.

From the NCAA’s 2013-14 Division I manual: “1.3.1 Basic Purpose. [*] The competitive athletics programs of member institutions are designed to be a vital part of the educational system. A basic purpose of this Association is to maintain intercollegiate athletics as an integral part of the educational program and the athlete as an integral part of the student body and, by so doing, retain a clear line of demarcation between intercollegiate athletics and professional sports.”

This is important because the NCAA has argued that this unique situation -- that players are students engaging in an avocation -- justifies the rules that restrict athletes from cashing in on their name, image and likeness rights. The plaintiffs have argued that NCAA and school officials merely pay lip service to academics while running major college sports just like professional ones.

Under direct examination on Monday, former Vanderbilt linebacker Chase Garnham said that wasn’t the case. “I would say that I was an athlete first, a student second,” Garnham said. To establish this stance, plaintiffs’ attorneys questioned Garnham about his choice of classes, his major and his time commitments. Garnham graduated from Vanderbilt last December with a degree in Human and Organizational Management. He said about half of his signing class chose the same major. An NCAA attorney attacked Garnham’s implication that players either steered themselves or were steered toward the easiest majors by pointing out that Garnham’s teammate DeAndre Jones fulfilled all of his football responsibilities while still obtaining a degree in mechanical engineering. The NCAA attorneys then set out to prove that Garnham had plenty of spare time by highlighting his television-watching habits as defined by his Twitter feed.

The implication? Garnham could have chosen to pursue a more challenging major, but instead he chose to watch Ari Gold, Turtle, Rick and Ice Cube's mom cooking a breakfast with no hog.

Later, the plaintiffs called Drexel sport management professor Ellen Staurowsky as an expert witness to claim that big-time college sports are nearly identical to professional sports with the exception of the compensation model, which is governed by the NCAA rules being challenged in this case. NCAA attorneys immediately attempted to have all testimony from Staurowsky, who has written several pieces (see: here and here) critical of the NCAA and the business model of major college sports, tossed out because they believe she shouldn’t be considered an expert. An expert witness has more latitude to use hearsay, and the NCAA challenged that latitude at nearly every turn. Judge Claudia Wilken told NCAA attorneys that if they could discredit the alleged facts being discussed by Staurowsky, Wilken would reconsider Staurowsky’s testimony. The NCAA attorneys will get their chance when they begin their cross-examination.

During direct examination, Staurowsky cited an NCAA study in which athletes in FBS football and Division I men’s basketball reported that they actually spend more time on sports than they do on academics. She also argued multiple times that the NCAA’s definition of amateurism has shifted over time. “There’s no clear line of demarcation,” she said.

For more analysis of O’Bannon v. NCAA, check out SI.com’s complete coverage hub.