Recent Vanderbilt alum and former gridiron standout Chase Garnham testified against the NCAA on Monday, continuing his role in the battle between amateur athletics and the big business of college sports in America.
Garnham joined O'Bannon v. the NCAA, an anti-trust lawsuit that alleges that the governing body improperly profited from the likeness of college athletes without properly compensating them, as a plaintiff last July. On Monday, he finally received the chance to explain his case in front of Judge Claudia Wilken.
Much of Garnham's time on the stand was spent sparring with the NCAA's attorneys over whether or not there was a difference between LB #36 - the EA Sports avatar who happened to have the same exact physical attributes and measurements of a certain Vanderbilt linebacker - and Garnham himself. When the recent graduate was asked whether or not he had ever appeared in a video game, his answer was simple: "Yes."
The NCAA countered by providing an image of the game's avatar for #11 from Stanford - a player Garnham quickly identified as Shayne Skov - and pointing out that both he and the VU player had the same face. EA's game, the defense asserted, was not based on any specific players and too limited to scope to be truly personalized in the way that O'Bannon and his co-plantiffs suggest.
The NCAA also argued that the value of Garnham's scholarship - an education that cost more than $50,000 per year and the ability to graduate from Vanderbilt University without student debt - was equitable compensation for the time he spent as a student-athlete. Garnham stressed that football was a major part in his life at Vandy, even saying that he was "an athlete first, student second." However, he stopped short of saying that the university or athletic staffers forced him to prioritize his status as a football player over the importance of his classwork. In fact, Garnham made an effort to defend the university in the midst of actively arguing against the NCAA.
NCAA attorney asking Garnham if James Franklin stressed the importance of going to class. Garnham said Franklin did.— Andy Staples (@Andy_Staples) June 16, 2014
Garnham says he received great medical care at Vandy and nobody threatened to take away his scholarship when he was hurt— Mark Schlabach (@Mark_Schlabach) June 16, 2014
Defense lawyers set out to prove that football wasn't the only aspect of Garnham's life as a collegiate athlete by running down all of the linebacker's free time as a student athlete via his Twitter feed. The NCAA parsed through years of tweets to prove that Garnham found time to watch television shows like Sons of Anarchy and movies like The Usual Suspects during the 2013 football season of. While they succeeded in calling out Chase's questionable taste - he showed a big preference for Lebron James and called all eight seasons of Entourage "awesome" - it did not seem like a compelling argument against Garnham's claims that football was the top priority in his college life.
The Vanderbilt alum also faced questions about the forms he signed as a player that effectively handed many of the rights to his likeness away to the NCAA. While Garnham had given the governing body that permission, he also added a note at the bottom to clarify that he was fully aware that his signature was the only way he would be able to get on the field.
Garnham also signed Vandy consent form, but added personal statement at bottom: "with understanding that I had to sign in order to play"— Mark Schlabach (@Mark_Schlabach) June 16, 2014
While much of his testimony and examination as a witness revolved around whether or not the NCAA profited from using his avatar in EA's NCAA Football video game franchise, there were several other interesting revelations that arose from Garnham's time on the stand.
Garnham's most inflammatory statement may have come when he admitted to taking medication before games to keep nagging injuries at bay as an upperclassman. That admission is something that could earn play outside of the O'Bannon case thanks to the class-action lawsuit that more than 500 NFL retirees brought against the league back in May. Those former players claim that the league perpetuated an environment where dangerous painkillers were mixed and distributed with little regulation in order to prepare injured players for big games. Garnham's honesty could be a point that the NFL uses to show that this attitude isn't solely an NFL product, but part of football's overall culture.
Garnham said he took pain medication "before almost every game" as a junior and a senior.— Andy Staples (@Andy_Staples) June 16, 2014
In all, Garnham's testimony lasted around an hour on Monday and touched on the major tenets of his class-action suit against the NCAA. His debate with defense attorneys centered around two major themes; whether or not football dominated his life at Vanderbilt to a point where it hindered his status as a student and whether or not his diploma, and the lack of student debt attached to it, were compensation enough for the time he invested as the starting linebacker for the Commodores. While it's clear that Garnham spent the last four years working as a moving part of one of the most public faces of the university - and that he made several invested parties money as a result - the ultimate decision over his amateur status and his ability to claim revenue tied to his likeness will rest in the hands of Judge Wilken as this trial moves forward.