College Athletes’ Video Game Settlement Moves NCAA One Step Closer to Annihilation

Ed O'Bannon playing for the UCLA men's basketball team.
Ed O’Bannon helped lead the UCLA men’s basketball team to a NCAA championship.

Photo by J.D. Cuban/Getty Images

College football and basketball players who appeared in EA Sports games are on the verge of getting compensated for their virtual performances. Student-athletes who sued EA Sports and the Collegiate Licensing Co. over the use of their likenesses in video games have filed a motion to approve a proposed $40 million settlement.

The AP reports that well over 100,000 former and current athletes could receive payouts ranging from $48 for each year from 2003 on that their name appeared on a roster to $951 for each year their image was used in a video game. Fewer players signing up for the settlement means more money for each one who does. If the settlement is approved, as much as $13.2 million—roughly one-third of the settlement funds—will go to lawyers in addition to a maximum $2.5 million in legal fees.

ESPN reports that NCAA officials had tried to get around some of these issues by letting EA use player avatars that left off the players’ actual names. But according to the settlement, even when names were left off the virtual images were still closely matched to dozens of other real ID’ing characteristics for each student-athlete:

For example, for the NCAA football videogame, EA matched: (1) the name of the real student-athlete; (2) his real-life jersey number; (3) his position played; (4) his hometown; (5) his year of eligibility; (6) his athletic abilities (on at least 22 dimensions, including speed, strength, agility, etc.); (7) his physical characteristics (on at least 26 dimensions, including, weight, height, skin color, face geometry, hair style, muscle shape, etc.); and (8) how he dressed for games in real life (on at least 28 dimensions, including shoes, how they taped, braces worn, undershirts, facemask and helmet styles, etc.).

The settlement with EA Sports and the College Licensing Co. does not resolve the O’Bannon v. NCAA case, which is scheduled to go to trial on June 9 in Oakland, California. That suit was filed by former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon in July 2009 and objected to the restrictions that the NCAA places on letting athletes profit from the use of their names and likenesses.

O’Bannon v. NCAA is one of three pending antitrust suits that accuse the NCAA of limiting in one way or another the financial compensation that college athletes see. The case has the potential to overturn the massive business machine behind major college athletics by granting student-athletes the right to a cut of the television revenue from their performances.