OAKLAND, Calif . (CN) - The popularity of college sports will take a major hit if the athletes begin getting paid when their games are televised, a former CBS executive testified Thursday.
"I have a substantial concern that it would change the fabric of the sport," said Neal Pilson, who was president of CBS Sports for 12 years and is now a sports television consultant with his own company.
He was testifying before U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken at the federal trial of an antitrust class action against the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Former UCLA basketball player Edward O'Bannon is the lead plaintiff in the case, which accuses the NCAA of forcing thousands of student athletes to sign away rights to their images, while cheating them out of their share of television broadcast dollars. Munger, Tolles & Olson attorney Kelly Klaus represents the NCAA.
Pilson said the public views college athletes differently from the pros - perceiving them as students and amateurs who play for the love of the game.
"I think viewers appreciate and enjoy the concept that college football players are playing because they enjoy playing college football," he said. "They volunteer to play it, they compete, they risk injury, they are relatively young and they are amateurs. I am not naive that the public isn't aware of the attention some players get, but the public differentiates college sports over professional sports for reasons that aren't true for professional sports. There is an identification with a college or university, and the fact that the players move through the college system. Most only play for one or two years. The loyalty is not to the players - it is to the sport and the institution."
If schools rush to pay for the best athletes, college athletics would most certainly become more money driven, Pilson said.
"I'm concerned that the recruiting aspect of getting young high school players to play at certain colleges could be very distressing," he continued. "If there were no rules, you would have a land rush of agents and big money chasing high school juniors and seniors to get them to play for certain schools. And to get the best players you have to get the best coaches. Salaries for coaches would be driven up. A large number of casual fans around the country would be turned off by the land rush that would almost be required if this were to take place. I think it's a negative and I think it will happen."
The words "name, image and likeness," or NIL, have been used in the broadcast industry for a long time, but the concept of the rights to player's names, images and likenesses is new, Pilson added.
"There's a difference between NIL and 'NIL rights,'" he said. "While the industry is well aware of NIL, the discussion of whether those are NIL 'rights' is a relatively recent phenomena."
In all his years negotiating deals to broadcast sporting events, "I've never been a part of a negotiation where there was a discussion of the grant, transfer or license of NIL rights," Pilson added.
Student athletes would no longer be considered amateurs if they are able to share in television broadcast revenues, Pilson testified. Noting that he had been watching the U.S. Open that morning, Pilson said a young golfer who was identified as an amateur certainly would not have been compensated for having had his name and likeness shown on television.
Plaintiffs' attorney Bill Isaacson hammered away at Pilson in an attempt to have him concede that most people no longer see student athletes as amateurs.
Isaacson presented a passage from famed University of Alabama coach Paul "Bear" Bryant's autobiography, which says, "I used to go along with the idea that football players on scholarship were 'student-athletes,' which is what the NCAA calls them. Meaning a student first, an 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 an athlete first and a student second."
Isaacson also pointed to a Knight Commission survey that said the majority of Americans view college sports more like professional than amateur sports.
Pilson said: "Maybe I'm naive, but if we go down the road of paying players substantial sums, all will be lost, and we're just developing a cadre of hired guns that will have no link to the colleges other than showing up for the practices and games."
Earlier Thursday morning, former NBA TV president Edwin Desser testified for the plaintiffs that, when telecasters negotiate deals to televise games, they are paying for images and likenesses of the participants, and that those images have value.
"You simply cannot show sports events without the benefit of showing the players in those events," Desser said. "I still think the appearance of the players and their activities on the field or the court are things of value. And to the extent that somebody is given the legal right to capture that and disseminate it, they are getting something of value or they wouldn't be paying for it."