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UW-Madison clarifies it has ‘no plans to stop offering athletics’ after chancellor’s testimony in NCAA amateurism lawsuit

September 18, 2018

UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank sounded a warning this week about the future of intercollegiate athletics at the school if it is forced to pay student-athletes.

But in a statement Tuesday, a UW spokesperson said the school had no plans to stop offering athletics after Blank testified a day earlier at an NCAA antitrust trial that the university may not sponsor a sports program if it’s not an amateur endeavor.

The case, brought against the NCAA and major conferences in the Northern District of California by former Division I football and basketball players, is deciding whether the NCAA can limit compensation for athletes to the full cost of attendance.

Blank testified that UW-Madison would have to weigh continuing its membership with the NCAA if that cap were invalidated and student-athletes were compensated beyond levels now allowable under the national governing body’s rules.

“It’s not clear that we would continue to run an athletic program,” Blank said in her testimony, according to Law360.com. “We’re not interested in professional sports. We’re interested in student-athletes.”

In a statement issued Tuesday in response to a request for an interview with Blank, a UW spokesperson said “the University of Wisconsin has no plans to stop offering athletics.”

“Chancellor Blank strongly supports Wisconsin’s athletic program and believes the Badgers are a major asset to our campus and the Big Ten,” the statement said.

The statement went on to explain that Blank’s comments were offered “in the context of describing the economics of running a major broad-based amateur athletics program.”

Specifically, the statement noted, plaintiffs in federal litigation have sought to invalidate NCAA rules governing the compensation that may be paid to collegiate student-athletes, arguing that student athletes are treated as professional athletes and should enjoy compensation for the use of their images, names and likenesses.

Blank emphasized that “there is a market separate from professional sports for amateur sports, that college athletes are students first, that paying student athletes would undermine the university community and treat certain student athletes differently than others.”

“If a change to the structure of college athletics were to occur, UW would expect to be part of any conversation within the Big Ten and nationally about what that would mean for university athletic programs,” the statement said. “Chancellor Blank believes that the current set of NCAA rules governing payments to student athletes for the use of their names, images and likenesses are appropriate to maintain a market for amateur athletics in the university setting.”

Blank, UW-Madison’s Chancellor since 2013 who was a witness for the NCAA, conceded under cross examination that she has not done any analysis of how loosening payment rules would impact college sports.

UW sports had an estimated $970 million total economic impact on the state in a 2011 study by NorthStar Economics commissioned by the athletic department.

A UW Athletics spokesperson declined comment on Blank’s testimony.

U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken seemed to cast doubt on whether Blank’s caution in her testimony about a pay-for-play setup for college sports would impact her decision. She said she would take the opinions of witness who are not expert economists in such matters “with a grain of salt.”

Steve Berman, an attorney for the student-athletes, pressed Blank during cross examination on her previous criticism of the salaries paid to some of the school’s coaches. Football coach Paul Chryst makes $3.75 million per year in base salary plus an additional compensation agreement. Men’s basketball coach Greg Gard is due to earn $2.35 million this season.

Blank said it was “unfortunate” that caps on college coaches’ salaries were lifted, according to Law360.com.

The NCAA imposed rules in 1992 limiting some salaries for assistant coaches, but a federal judge three years later found the ceiling to be against antitrust laws.

UW receives between $43 million and $45 million annually from the NCAA in addition to its share of a six-year, $2.64 billion Big Ten Conference media rights contract, Blank testified.

The UW athletic department’s $143.5 million budget for the 2018-19 school year includes an estimated $42.5 million in revenue from conference media deals. About $9.8 million is transferred from athletics back to campus.

More than $59 million of the 2018-19 budget, or 41 percent, is scheduled to go toward salaries and fringe benefits for coaches and other employees.

The ongoing case in Oakland, California, is weighing whether athletes are entitled to a free market for their collegiate careers. It’s one of a number of legal challenges to the NCAA’s limits on compensation for athletes as the national body seeks to protect what it sees as the tenets of amateurism.

Former Badgers basketball player Nigel Hayes was one of the first three plaintiffs in the lawsuit in 2014.

A victory by the student-athletes would “upend the NCAA’s system of amateurism,” Michael McCann, founding director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire School of Law, wrote in 2016.

Wilken earlier presided over a $208 million settlement between the NCAA and a class of around 40,000 former student-athletes who received scholarship packages before the organization allowed for expanded payments starting in 2015 to cover the full cost of attendance.

In 2014, Wilken ruled for the class led by former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon in a case contesting both the restriction of payment to student-athletes and the use of their likeness without compensation. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld in 2015 that some NCAA rules violate antitrust laws but ruled that paying the full cost of attendance was sufficient.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 2016 declined to hear the O’Bannon case.

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