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Time For NCAA To Start Getting It Right

July 24, 2009 - John Whittaker
A few years ago, my brother and I were playing March Madness 2003 - like that's news.
On this particular day, it wasn't Syracuse vs. Connecticut or Duke vs. Kentucky being played out with video game controllers.
It was Maceo Wofford and Iona vs. Justin Miller and Siena.
It wasn't PG 12 vs. PF 34.
Every time Wofford hit a 3-pointer, I'd hear about Maceo lighting me up. Every time Miller pulled down an offensive rebound and stuff home a dunk, Matt heard about Miller dunking on his head.
And, it's not like the physical characteristics weren't right on. Video Maceo was 5-feet 10 inches tall, 190 pounds, from New York, with a 3-point shooter icon. Video Justin was 6-feet 8 inches tall, 230 pounds, with blond hair.
I won, by the way, because my Video Justin had something like 35 points and 15 rebounds, but that's neither here nor there.
Do you know what Justin and Maceo made from that video game?
Less than they made from playing in the Gus Macker tournament in downtown Jamestown -- where at least they get a free t-shirt and a cool trophy if they win (which they always do).
There have always been academics talking about the injustice of it all - poor kids who struggle to make it from day to day while they're in college while the NCAA and the colleges make millions off of collegiate sports.
Now, though, the athletes -- make that, ex-athletes -- are doing something about it.
Ryan Hart, who used to play quarterback for Rutgers, is suing EA Sports in a New Jersey court for using his likeness without permission. Sam Keller, who used to play quarterback for Arizona State, has also filed a lawsuit against EA Sports. Now, Ed O'Bannon, most outstanding player of the 1995 Final Four on the UCLA national championship team, has filed a lawsuit on behalf of former NCAA football and basketball players seeking unspecified damages from the Collegiate Licensing Company and the NCAA.
You see, it's about more than just video games.
O'Bannon is featured on almost every Greatest Games DVD the NCAA puts out, and never sees a dime from it. And, while O'Bannon made his millions from his NBA contract, think about a guy like Craig Forth, the starting center on Syracuse's 2003 national championship team. That game is one of the top 10 or 15 NCAA title games, but Forth won't see a penny from the NCAA every time it uses his image to promote itself. Syracuse University is selling a DVD of the championship team for $19.95 so fans like me can enjoy highlights from the tournament run. Forth won't see a penny from that, either.
There are t-shirts, garbage cans, lunch boxes, flamethrowers, pictures, shorts, jerseys, hats, underwear, wall hangings and license plates -- all licensed by the CLC, all making money for the NCAA. There are even collegiate caskets now for the seriously deranged among us.
The NCAA has always taken amateurism seriously, and I understand why. Part of the appeal of collegiate sports is watching kids, untarnished by the big contracts of professional sports, playing as hard as they can for the love of the game. There are rule books that weigh as much as I do that guide what an athlete can and can't accept and still remain eligible for sports.
The NCAA says its licensing practices are legal because athletes sign Form 08-3a, which authorizes the NCAA "or a third party acting on behalf of the NCAA" the right "to use your name or picture to generally promote NCAA championships or other NCAA events, activities or programs."
Basically, we can use your likeness to make money, but we'll suspend you if you do. And, after you leave college, you're on your own while we can continue making money on your name and image.
I'd hate to see the NCAA turn around and, in the face of lawsuits, just stop making the video games. But, would it really kill amateurism to have Tim Tebow's video game character say "Tebow" underneath his likeness in the game rather than QB 15? Would it be the worst thing ever to take some of the video game sales proceeds, or money from the contract with EA Sports, and put it into some sort of blind trust for former college athletes? Would the world end if the all-time great teams had the players' names listed so that, when you're playing those games, you don't have to run out and download rosters to know who's who?
But, it's wrong - almost criminal - that the NCAA and the Collegiate Licensing Company are making millions of dollars a year (and some would argue they're making billions of dollars a year) while the players get nothing. Let's face it - the game wouldn't be as much fun if the players didn't match up with real life (though Syracuse football would probably be a heck of a lot better in the video game).
According to USA Today, it's not even like O'Bannon is expecting a ton of money if he wins his lawsuit.
To compensate former players, O'Bannon's lawsuit, according to USA Today, suggests revenue sharing modeled after group licensing deals in professional sports. An alternative, the suit says, could be the creation of funds for health insurance, additional educational or vocational training or pension plans for former student-athletes.
I think the NCAA is losing this suit, especially given the precedent of a recent court case involving retired NFL players in which the retired players sued because their likenesses were used in the Madden video game series. The court ruled the players were entitled to $26 million.
Madden didn't go away - and neither should the NCAA games.
For once, maybe the NCAA will do the right thing. More likely, however, is the courts forcing the NCAA to do the right thing.

 
 

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