Athletes should be paid when their image, likeness used
The debate over compensation for NCAA athletes is heating up, as a federal judge allowed a class action lawsuit about the use of players’ likenesses in video games to move forward. Both sides in the case were able to claim a victory. The plaintiffs, led by former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon, now have groundwork in place for college athletes to form a trade association or union to negotiate future licensing deals. The NCAA avoided a major blow, as the judge rejected a broader class certification that would have otherwise included players who hadn’t suited up for their schools in over a decade. The decision could wind up saving the NCAA billions.
Rather than spending millions of dollars on legal fees to maintain a broken system, the NCAA should be working with athletes and universities to develop a more equitable model that would, in the organization’s own words, “focus on the development of our student-athletes” by creating a system that rewards them for completing their college education.
The current lawsuit is focused on player likenesses in the NCAA’s football- and basketball-themed video games. A fan of the NCAA football franchise may recognize that the 5-foot-10, 197-pound HB #25 playing for the UA is a pretty damn good football player. A series of emails released during the case suggest that the NCAA was aware that player likenesses were being used.
“The issue for me is that the names and likenesses are rigged into the games now by illegal means, meaning that many of the video game players have the features,” wrote then-NCAA Vice President Greg Shaheen in the emails. “It’s just that our membership doesn’t benefit from it.”
Shaheen estimated that the player likenesses would be worth an additional $4-8 million a year. Then-NCAA president Myles Brand responded in the emails that university presidents would be unwilling to permit the use of athletes’ names and likenesses in video games, even though a number of schools have already profited off the sales of athlete memorabilia.
“Do they realize that there is already some of that taking place on their campuses and in their conferences?” Brand asked. “Probably so.”
Twelve Division I schools, including Arizona State University, admitted in a survey filed by the plaintiffs to having sold licensed merchandise featuring a current athlete’s individual likeness.
“Does the inconsistency matter to them? Apparently not,” Brand wrote.
Video game publisher Electronic Arts has agreed to a $40 million settlement that would pay more than 100,000 former college athletes, leaving the NCAA as the sole defendant in the case. The NCAA has responded by suing EA for “self-dealing in settlement negotiations without the NCAA’s knowledge, authorization or participation,” according to the filing. Additionally, EA will not publish a college football game in 2014.
With the NCAA fighting a losing battle on the video game front, it seems likely that athletes will soon turn their attention to lucrative TV sponsorships. The Pac-12, for example, signed a 12-year $2.7 billion deal with Fox and ESPN.
With public opinion shifting in favor of athlete compensation — 61 percent of respondents said student-athletes should profit from their status, according to a SportsNation online poll— the question will likely become how to implement such a pay scheme, rather than when.
When asked if college sports should remain amateur and athletes should remain without pay while in college, O’Bannon seemed to soften his stance, saying, “Yeah, I think so.”
Others, such as CNN fortune blog contributor Daniel Roberts, criticize the proposed payment model that would reward all the players on Texas A&M’s football team the same as star quarterback Johnny Manziel.
If I worked at the NCAA, I would be devising a system that would reward players for completing their education. For UA football players that entered school in 2006, 60 percent graduated within six years. For basketball players, it was 64 percent. The national averages were 59 percent and 50 percent, respectively.
It is ridiculous that athletes at major college sports programs, who put their bodies on the line for our entertainment, don’t get a bigger slice of the $10.8 billion NCAA pie. A model that rewards players for earning their degrees won’t disrupt the balance of college athletics. The Manziels and basketball one-and-dones will still get paid in the pros, but for the 98.6 percent of college football players who won’t play professionally, maybe they’ll spend a little less time in the weight room and a little more time in the classroom.
Max Weintraub is a senior studying creative writing and Italian studies. Follow him @mweintra13.