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Should College Athletes Get Paid for Appearing in Video Games?

A football sitting on a fanned-out stack of 20 dollar bills.

The bigger the business of college sports gets, the more the line between student and professional blurs. They already don’t make any money on jersey sales (though most schools just sell jerseys with numbers, not names). And they also don’t see a dime for having their name and likeness used in official NCAA video games.

That’s the official practice, but it may or may not be… technically speaking… legal. Starting with former UCLA player Ed O’Bannon, a total of seven college athletes have joined together on a long-brewing class-action lawsuit against the NCAA, Electronic Arts (EA), and the Collegiate Licensing Company (CLC) for licensing out their likeness without permission. This could become a major case, not so much because of what it means for videogames, but because the only way the NCAA has a case is to argue that college athletes should not be granted the same rights as professionals, that their work and their likeness are not their own property, but the property of the college they attend. If the NCAA loses, that sets a precedent for many, many more cases regarding the professional nature of the college athlete.

In the latest wrinkle to this story, the NCAA has decided to part ways with EA, mostly out of fear of the monetary damage this lawsuit could do. EA (which, it’s worth noting, has been voted the worst company in the world by Forbes magazine two years in a row) has in turn said, “Well, whatever, we don’t need you anyway. We’ll just go through the CLC and the individual colleges.” In theory, that just means their upcoming games will be titled things like College Football 2015,”instead of NCAA Football 2015. In practice, it could mean there are bizarre holes in the games’ conferences. What if EA can’t come to an agreement with some football powerhouse like the Ducks or the Wolverines? Will they just not exist in the world of the game? Or will EA try to plug the holes with imitation brand teams: the Mallards and the Weasels?

Back in 2009, EA announced that it would be putting its college basketball games on indefinite hiatus. At this point, the series was only selling around 600,000 copies per entry. (The NCAA Football series sells about 1 million more per entry.) Keep in mind these retail for around $50-$60 a piece, and each new yearly entry is basically just a roster update and one or two new interface changes. I can’t imagine production costs are that high. The licensing fees with the NCAA must be absolutely insane if selling half a million copies each year is considered enough of a failure to quit altogether.

And that’s excluding royalties sent to college athletes.

I can’t get behind the idea that college athletes should be paid for their performance. At that point, there really isn’t anything separating them from professionals. But using their likeness? I’m not sure what to think. I’d certainly want to be compensated if someone ever made money off a digital version of me.

In 2009, a court ruled that universities cannot claim ownership of inventions simply because they were made using campus resources. College athletes might not be inventors, per se, but money is still being generated because of their work. I’m not sure exactly what that ownership looks like, but I’m pretty sure that there is some ownership there.

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