NCAA FB

NCAA video game stance is pure hypocrisy

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Mark Kriegel

Mark Kriegel is the national columnist for FOXSports.com. He is the author of two New York Times best sellers, Namath: A Biography and Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich, which Sports Illustrated called "the best sports biography of the year."

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In keeping with the slogan "It's in the game," promotional videos for EA Sports' just-released "NCAA Football" are notable for their high degree of verisimilitude. ESPN's Erin Andrews and Kirk Herbstreit, both of whom gave up their amateur status years ago, are acknowledged by name. But the players are identifiable with a mere glance. There's Texas quarterback Colt McCoy wearing his No. 12, and DeMarco Murray, Oklahoma's No. 7. There goes Evan Royster, Penn State's No. 22 and Oregon safety T.J. Ward, No. 2. But my favorite — everyone's favorite, really — is Tim Tebow. The virtual Tebow is as singular as the real one: a big hoss white guy, the quarterback with a fullback's physique. His socks barely cover his ankles, and he runs over oncoming safeties. The only difference is he's not Tim Tebow. As per to NCAA strictures, he's identified as "QB #15." And like almost everything else the NCAA gets its hypocritical hands on, it makes you wince and want to say: Are you kidding me? "They want to maintain the myth that this isn't a commercial venture," said Leonard Aragon, a lawyer on one of several pending lawsuits that just may change the way the NCAA does its allegedly non-profit business. Aragon represents Sam Keller, a former quarterback at Arizona State and Nebraska, in a class-action suit against EA Sports and the NCAA. At issue is not just Keller's likeness, but of all former and current football and basketball players who received nothing for use of their likenesses in the video games. Here's how it works. Before a high school kid can accept a scholarship, he must sign a document that would shame Don King. It's called Form 08-3a, and it 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."
"They're stomping on the rights of players," said former UCLA linebacker Ramogi Huma, executive director of an advocacy group called the National College Players Association. "The NCAA says one of its principles is to protect the athlete from commercial exploitation, then they turn around and exploit players for their commercial gain." The NCAA has a $6 billion deal with CBS to televise March Madness. Its own marketing arm estimates there's a "$4.0 billion annual market for collegiate licensed merchandise." A lot of people get rich in the process. But the student-athletes can't accept a dime. Actually, they're lucky if they get adequate health insurance, which the NCAA conveniently leaves up to the member institutions. Huma recalls a teammate, Donnie Edwards, getting in trouble for accepting a bag of groceries. You tend to burn a lot of calories playing college football, and the kid was, well, hungry. He shouldn't have had to depend on anyone's charity, not while his jersey was selling for top dollar on campus. But that's the student-athlete's preposterous predicament. "Everything is done so the NCAA and the schools can monopolize and maximize profit," said Huma. This faux amateurism creates an underground economy, in which ballplayers providing services below market value take illicit payments on the side. Without reform, it's a system that just might crack under the weight of its own hypocrisy. There are a couple of other lawsuits out there, including another class-action filed by former UCLA basketball star Ed O'Bannon. The O'Bannon suit — pushed by Sonny Vaccaro, a famous sneaker salesman now recasting his image as an altruist — is a broader anti-trust case. It raises an interesting question: If a kid has to sign away his rights to play, then isn't the NCAA running a monopoly? Isn't Form 08-3a really just a way to restrain trade? I called the NCAA, three times in fact. I got the usual response, which is to say, none. Then again, what do you expect from a non-profit? As it happens, NCAA by-laws prohibit the commercial licensing of a player's "name, picture or likeness." But again, who are they kidding? If a white quarterback with a fullback build and low socks is wearing No. 15 for Florida, hasn't Tim Tebow's likeness already been exploited? It's not just the Tebows or the Colt McCoys, either. It's all of them, from DeMarco Murray to Eugene Jarvis, the 5-foot-5 running back for the Kent State Golden Flashes. From the Keller suit: "Electronic Arts seeks to replicate each school's entire team. With rare exception, virtually every real-life Division I football or basketball player has a corresponding player in Electronic Arts' games with the same jersey number, and virtually identical height, weight, build and home state. In addition, Electronic Arts matches the player's skin tone, hair color, and often even a player's hair style ..." But no name. That would be exploitation. "It's really an insult," said Huma. "Not just to the players, but to the people playing the game." Nobody's getting fooled, except perhaps, the NCAA itself. Back in May, the NCAA predicted the Keller case would be thrown out. Aragon predicts differently: "If I give this game to a jury and they play it for 20 minutes, they're going to know there's a problem here. They're going to know the NCAA is using and profiting from college players' likeness." The case is a lot like the one retired NFL players filed against their union, charging that their likenesses were being wrongfully exploited in EA's "Madden" video game. The retired players won more than $26 million. There were hundreds of them. There are thousands of student-athletes. That's a lot of groceries.

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