Last Friday hundreds of thousands of former and current college athletes won something they, as student athletes, would not traditionally be familiar with: money.
Video game company EA Sports will pay out about $40 million in a settlement with a group of former players who brought a class-action suit against the video game producer and the NCAA for profiting off the use of their likenesses in their basketball and football games.
This leaves the NCAA as the lone defendant in the case headed by former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon and former college quarterback Sam Keller (though 200,000 to 300,000 former and current players stand to earn money from the settlement).
The players say they should receive compensation for what they argue is unpaid labor; a line of reasoning that has recently gained steam in the form of the “All Players United” movement”. The campaign includes football players from multiple schools, who, beginning September 21, began wearing gear with the handwritten letters “APU” and using social media to protest the treatment of college athletes.
Regardless the merits and morals of the argument to pay college athletes (which itself is a compelling discussion worthy of serious consideration and far, far more than just a few hundred words), the reality is that both for-profit and nonprofit institutions make tremendous amounts of money from the hard work of individuals, who are prohibited from personally earning anything from that same hard work.
The nonprofit NCAA recorded $71 million in “surplus revenue” in 2012, with net assets for the year totaling more than $566 million, double its total from just six years earlier.
On another level, Texas A&M University received a record $740 million in donations for the past fiscal year in which freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel won the Heisman Trophy and led the team to its best season in more than a half century. But while the school relished the 300 percent hop in gifts and coach Kevin Sumlin received a $1.1million raise, Manziel was suspended for reportedly signing thousands of autographs for just “a five figure flat fee,” though no actual evidence the 20-year-old had received money was found. And other players have been punished far more harshly for much smaller infringements.
Another group of losers in this particular situation are fans of the college sports video games the EA Sports produced, as the company announced it would not release an NCAA Football 2015 next year due to the lawsuit. Such games, including their NCAA Basketball series discontinued after 2010, became legally awkward.
As a former player of both the college football and basketball video games, the claim that these student athletes’ likenesses were not being used is comical. The characters in the game were almost exact replications of their real-life counterparts in terms of demographics, height, build, skills, etc. The only difference is that the back of the jersey would omit the player’s name. Nevertheless, in NCAA Football 2010, users could find former University of Florida quarterback (and quasi-sports Jesus) Tim Tebow’s name featured in the game playbook.
EA Sports generated more than $1.3 million in U.S. sales from its NCAA Football video games series since its launch in 1998, while the individuals unofficially featured in the game made zero.
While a few athletes do come around to significant money in pro sports, most will not – something the NCAA proudly boasts – and thus go unpaid for their work and commitment while in college.
While the direct connection to enormous profits may not perfectly translate, the argument for compensating high-level collegiate athletes parallels the increased used of unpaid internships and the corresponding growing controversy over what constitutes unpaid labor.
The concept is similar: young adults must endure a level of unpaid practice in their field as a way of entry to the professional level. Yet the principle still exists that companies and universities wreak disproportionate benefits from the unpaid work of college athletes and interns (even though many of those young adults benefit in the long term). Due compensation for these unpaid individuals is an argument that many, EA Sports included, seem forced to concede.
This article was written by Nikolas DeCosta-Klipa. Email him at ndecost1[at]ithaca.edu