published Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014

Greeson: EA settlement adds push to pay for collegians

One of the hanging threads that has been dangling in the sightline of the NCAA has been pulled.

EA Sports on Saturday settled at least three class-action lawsuits brought by former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon and others. The suits asked for payment and damages from the video game giant, which made hundreds of millions of dollars on its college sports franchises, and a big part of the attraction of those games was the realism. And a big part of that realism was the players and their characteristics.

It appears pretty cut and dried. Here's a portion of the settlement:

"EA's internal spreadsheets show that each avatar was matched to dozens of the real student-athlete's identifying characteristics. 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.)."

Wow.

The settlement, which has to be approved by a U.S. District Court judge, was for $40 million to be divided among three primary suits. Seventy-seven percent of the total (after attorneys' fees, of course) will go to the group led by former Arizona State quarterback Sam Keller, 12 percent will go to O'Bannon's group and 10 percent will go to another group led by a couple of former NCAA football players.

The settlement will cover players who played Division I football and men's hoops since 2003. Attorneys for the plantiffs estimate that there were between 140,000 and 200,000 players' likenesses used, and the varying payout to each will be determined by how many players sign up for the retribution.

So it goes and that may seem low, considering the gaming industry is a $4 billion enterprise today.

Still, this is ground-breaking in that college athletes are being rewarded -- and compensated -- for people making money off their likenesses. From here, the ripples could be far-reaching.

But as with all things involving off-the-field matters in regard to the NCAA, every ruling seems to open another three dozen questions. Let's review:

Does this mean the players are entitled to memorabilia sales from the schools? That remains to be seen, especially since a third-party organization such as EA Sports is not bound by the federal standards of Title IX. Still, the court has ruled the players can be compensated.

Is this the end of amateur athletes on the college level? The term "amateur" is loose in nature when talking about modern-day college sports to begin with, but this ruling -- this, at its core, is cash for being on a roster -- and the original finding that Northwestern's football players can vote to unionize certainly seem to call for a nomenclature overhaul. Still one of the attorneys in the O'Bannon suit said that to end amateur status the definition should be "making a living" playing a sport, and $2,000 or so dollars is hardly making a living.

Is this the end of the lawsuits? Not even a little bit, considering O'Bannon and the rest of the plantiffs know the NCAA was paid millions by EA Sports -- and several former major conference commissioners are referenced in the ruling as wondering about the wisdon of selling the rights and the likenesses of the players. O'Bannon's suit against the NCAA is set to go to trial on June 9, and rest assured the NCAA will do everything in its 10-figure power to win.

What's at stake when O'Bannon and the NCAA go to court? How about everything from TV revenue to sharing in the entire windfall. And, yes, if you were wondering what has pushed the NCAA into a position of open-mindedness in recent months and years, the O'Bannon train has been an engine of transformation.

Will this open the cash spigot for athletes in major sports in the major conferences? That stream has been discussed for a while, and the NCAA's decision to allow the major conferences more autonomy makes it appear the "full cost of attendance" will be a solution sooner rather than later.

Yes, it seems this ruling makes sense -- and dollars for the players -- considering the amounts generated for the gaming companies and the obvious computer-generated likenesses of the players. If you were playing with a Florida QB No. 15 who was left-handed, a bull-runner and had 100 in leadership or a Texas A&M QB No. 2 with electric quickness and improbable playmaking skills, well, we'll call that coincidence.

The next verse in this ham-handed song-and-dance seems to focus on what rather than when in regard to paying players.

And that seems at least appropriate and maybe even altogether fair considering the river of revenue streams generated by college athletes.

But if the answer is to pay the players in revenue-generating sports, then when does the question become how much is warranted?

It will be a topic sooner rather than later, and if the court decides, well, the NCAA is not likely going to like the answer.

Contact Jay Greeson at jgreeson@timesfreepress.com.

about Jay Greeson...

Jay was named the Sports Editor of the Times Free Press in 2003 and started with the newspaper in May 2002 as the Deputy Sports Editor. He was born and raised in Smyrna, Ga., and graduated from Auburn University before starting his newspaper career in 1997 with the Newnan (Ga.) Times Herald. Stops in Clayton and Henry counties in Georgia and two years as the Sports Editor of the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal preceded Jay’s ...

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