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As smoking guns go, it seemed pretty mild. For high drama, the testimony was pretty mundane. But after several hours of cross-examining NCAA President Mark Emmert on Thursday morning, attorney Bill Isaacson finally worked his way to the line in a nearly 4-year-old e-mail that might as well have been in all capital letters.
In a long memo to Emmert, who had just arrived on the job in the fall of 2010, then-NCAA vice president Wally Renfro had outlined several issues facing the organization. In a section on the commercial exploitation of student-athletes, Renfro suggested it was "a fairness issue, and along with the notion that athletes are students is the great hypocrisy of intercollegiate athletics."
Isaacson seemed astonished by the notion that Emmert had never discussed the e-mail with Renfro.
"I happened to disagree with (the assertion)," Emmert said, "so, no, we didn't spend time talking about that line in his memo."
Isaacson and Emmert spent plenty of time on that and other similar issues. And if anyone was expecting more -- a meltdown by Emmert or a performance that would turn the case on its ear in either direction -- they were probably disappointed. His testimony in the landmark antitrust case was historic, but its significance to the eventual outcome is difficult to gauge.
It's not over; he'll return to the stand this morning. Isaacson, the plaintiffs' attorney, declined Thursday to estimate how much longer he would keep Emmert on the stand, saying only, "I'm not done."
Neither is the Ed O'Bannon case. The trial is expected to run through next week. And it's hard to know what Emmert's heavily anticipated testimony actually meant. Clearly, theater was expected. The small courtroom on the fourth floor was filled and an overflow room allowed others to listen to (but not see) the testimony. O'Bannon, the former UCLA basketball player, sat at the plaintiffs' table.
There were minor gaffes and unintentionally humorous moments. In one answer during direct examination, Emmert said that although NCAA rules have evolved, a core value remained being a "full-time athlete." NCAA lawyer Glenn Pomerantz corrected him, suggesting Emmert meant "full-time student."
"Excuse me, I misspoke," Emmert said.
Emmert stuck doggedly to the NCAA's script, insisting that amateurism, as a core value of the NCAA, was essential to the goal of competitive balance and to integrating athletics and academics. Paying players in any form, he said, including for the rights to use their images and likenesses in game broadcasts, would irrevocably harm college sports.
At one point, U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken interjected, asking whether deferred compensation -- money put in trust until after players have finished their college athletic careers -- would damage the integration of academics and athletics.
"It's the same whether you're paid today or paid tomorrow," Emmert said, saying it would harm the athletes' relationship to the rest of the academic community. He added that "to convert college sports into professional sports would be tantamount to converting it to minor league sports."
And it's going to go on again inside the courtroom today, and then for a while after that.
What anyone thinks probably comes down to one's view going in; the question is what Wilken will think coming out (and after that, what the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals thinks and probably after that, what the Supreme Court thinks).