If only there were a jury, there’s a very good chance the O’Bannon trial would’ve swung heavily in the favor of the plaintiffs Wednesday after Tyrone Prothro took the stand.
Juries relate more to people than to economic facts, figures and theories, and it would be hard to find a more sympathetic figure than the former Alabama star.
In the span of 22 days during the 2005 season, Prothro’s football career reached its highest point with The Catch, one of the most amazing plays in Bryant-Denny Stadium history, and ended with an end-zone crash and a broken leg, one of the most gruesome injuries any of us has ever seen.
What does Prothro’s heartbreaking story have to do with a courtroom drama that has the NCAA’s outdated economic model at its center? That’ll depend on the ultimate ruling from U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken, but in many ways, Prothro was the perfect star witness to make the case that college football is a big business for everyone but the players, who put their physical selves and their financial futures on the line.
Consider some of the highlights from Prothro’s testimony, according to Jon Solomon of CBSsports.com and Stewart Mandel of SI.com:
The Catch against Southern Miss in 2005 was a behind-the-back catch with a twist. Prothro went nose-to-nose with a defensive back, reached around him and caught the ball behind the DB’s back.
That play earned $110,000 for Alabama’s general scholarship fund as part of a Pontiac promotion, but when Prothro went to the university three years later to get photos of The Catch for his book, he was told they would cost him $10 each. He passed.
Seems The Catch came with a catch.
Prothro was on a full football scholarship at Alabama, and after he got hurt, the university continued to pay for his education until he graduated in 2008. The university also has paid for his 10 surgeries since his injury, although he said a school trainer told him the 10th surgery would be the last on the school’s dime.
In a real-world example of the current full-cost-of-attendance debate, Prothro said he still owes about $10,000 on loans he took out for expenses his scholarship didn’t cover.
Ordinary students who graduate with much larger student loans to pay back may not have much sympathy, but ordinary students don’t spend as much time or generate as much revenue working for the university’s greater glory as Prothro did as a football star.
He testified that he spent much more time at Alabama working on football than working on his studies, yet he walked away from the school in pain and in debt. There’s something wrong with that picture.
Of course, that’s the picture the O’Bannon lawyers were trying to paint by putting Prothro on the stand. Major college football and basketball players risk a great deal, and their coaches and their schools are rewarded disproportionately in real time.
The athletes do it, in part – as Prothro said he did – for the promise of a greater reward if they turn pro. But that promise can vanish in an instant, and if it does, the bills don’t disappear.
Prothro was right in the middle of another memorable play from Mike Shula’s one-and-only winning season as the Alabama head coach. On the Crimson Tide’s first play from scrimmage that year against Florida, the game that would be his last, he caught an 87-yard touchdown pass from Brodie Croyle, and the rout was on.
Nine years later, Prothro’s football career is over, but simply by having the guts to tell his story in a courtroom, he’s right in the middle of something bigger than himself, bigger even than Alabama football. He’s doing his part to correct an injustice.
In the future, plays like The Catch shouldn’t come with a catch, and the players who make those plays shouldn’t walk away owing anything to anyone.