Student Athletes Say NCAA ‘Exploited’ Them in Antitrust Trial

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) – A former UC Berkeley basketball player on Friday accused the National Collegiate Athletic Association of “exploiting” her by so severely limiting the scholarship money she received playing sports she often went hungry, in a federal bench trial in Oakland challenging the association’s caps on compensation to student athletes.

Justine Hartman said she sometimes skipped classes because she was too hungry and tired to concentrate following daily six-hour basketball practices.

Her athletic scholarship set by the NCAA didn’t cover her expenses at the University of California, Berkeley, she said, forcing her to pay rent with money earmarked for food.

“We don’t have the means to excel at the highest level academically,” Hartman said. “We go without a lot. There are many with similar experiences, where they’re hungry and too tired” to focus on academics.

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 there is no guarantee the conferences would enact them. More likely, it says, wealthier schools would begin offering potential team members “millions of dollars” to play for them in the absence of pay limits, essentially turning those players into professional athletes.

Revenues from college sports would shrink, the association argues, because fans who value amateurism would stop buying tickets to games and television networks would pay conferences less money to broadcast the games.

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 already receiving federal Pell Grants and student assistance funds were compensated above the cost of attendance once the change took effect, according to the parties.

Under the new rules, current student athletes would presumably get more financial aid than plaintiffs like Hartman, who played for UC Berkeley before the pay caps were relaxed.

Challenging Hartman’s narrative Friday, Pac-12 Conference attorney Bart Williams of Proskauer Rose said “there were many occasions when you were in school when you did not go to class because you chose not to go to class.”

Williams presented emails sent by Hartman’s instructors at UC Berkeley. One said Harman hadn’t attended a single lecture or discussion for an interdisciplinary studies course, or turned in a single assignment. Another said she missed two months of a Swahili course, held in the off-season when she had no games scheduled and fewer team commitments.

“You were not prevented from attending class for two months,” Williams told Hartman.

“After practice I wouldn’t want to go to class hungry and unshowered,” Hartman replied.

Discussing food next, Williams said Hartman’s scholarship covered the cost of meals.

Hartman, however, said she spent that money on rent during the two years she lived off-campus.

Student athletes who live off-campus are given checks for room and board comparable to the cost of room and board on-campus. However, neither UC Berkeley nor the NCAA monitors how the funds are spent.

“If I had a little more money, I’d be less worried about food,” Hartman said on direct examination. “I’d probably be performing better in class because I’m not tired and hungry.”

Earlier in the day, former West Virginia University football player Shawne Alston testified his scholarship only covered 10 months of rent when school was in session, despite the requirement football players be on campus year-round.

But Williams, noting Alston was also getting a federal Pell Grant raising his compensation above the cost of attendance, said Alston’s financial aid was meant to cover the cost of off-campus rent. He suggested money was tight because Alston regularly sent about half his financial aid home to his mother.

“Sending it made it harder for you to do the things you wanted to do in college,” Williams said.

Alston denied the statement.

Playing for West Virginia, Alston said he was regularly injured and hungry. Finding time for academics was difficult, because football commitments usurped most of his time. Football players, he said, also made money for the school.

For those reasons, he said, student athletes should be paid a salary.

“So we wouldn’t be hungry,” he said. “Something to compensate us walking around hurt all day.”

Testimony resumes Sept. 17 and runs through Sept. 25.

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