Federal Judge Will Decide if NCAA Players Through a Class-Action Lawsuit Will Receive a Share of Video Game Revenues

The world of professional athletes has long been extremely financially rewarding. In recent years, college athletics have approached professional levels where revenue is concerned. The biggest difference is whether or not the players get a cut of the action. Beginning in 2008, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has faced increasing criticism from people who claim that college athletes are being exploited while colleges and the NCAA are making millions off the performance of these players.

The exploitations might not be permitted to last much longer. Ed O’Bannon, a former basketball star for UCLA, watched a friend’s son start up a video game in 2008 and was surprised to see himself appear on the screen. While his name never appeared, the player in the game undoubtedly resembled O’Bannon, down to his physique, his player number, and his right-handedness. O’Bannon was initially flattered until he realized that the gaming company was making money off of his likeness while he, O’Bannon, received nothing. The video game was published by E.A. Sports, a brand of Electronic Arts.

Beginning in 2009, O’Bannon filed a lawsuit seeking licensing of broadcast and video game rights for student athletes. Shortly after O’Bannon filed his lawsuit, the NCAA released a statement that its agreement with E.A. Sports prohibits the use of the names and pictures of athletes. However, in July 2003, six years before the lawsuit was ever filed, Peter Davis, an NCAA official, noted that Electronic Arts did include a feature in their latest football game, which allowed users to download rosters of players’ real names. Electronic Arts responded that the game did not use real names, although it did use “all the attributes and jersey numbers of the players.”

In an email, Davis asked if that was “too close to reality”. He was then warned by another NCAA executive, Melissa Caito, to be “cautious as you move through this – any more ‘watering down’ of the video games will likely move the manufacturers to cease operations with us”. Such a statement reflects the NCAA’s awareness that the video game avatars were pushing the limits of the law. It also demonstrates their determination to make as much money as possible off of the student athletes, while simultaneously making sure that they do not receive any of that money.

Other emails provide further evidence of high-level executives who see absolutely nothing wrong with the way they treat their athletes. David Berst, a senior NCAA executive, wrote to the head of the organization in August 2008 that, regarding “the student athlete, I think the focus of the exploitation may be misplaced, and maybe it is not our duty to protect the student athlete.”
Christine Plonsky from Texas, part of the presidential task force on commercialism, was equally dismissive. She wrote, “We have things we have to do a certain way to raise funds and pay for the scholarships and other things that [student athletes] and their parents expect. I view these cases as being the result of the entitlement attitude we’ve created in our revenue sports.”
Now O’Bannon’s lawsuit is moving to a critical stage.

A federal judge in Oakland, California will hear arguments concerning whether the case can proceed as a class action. If class-action status is granted, it would give the plaintiffs the opportunity to represent thousands of current and former student athletes.

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