More Than Just Money

By Eric Crawford
Updated: July 10, 2009

NCAA LOUISVILLE — I’m not a big video game guy.

But I’ve started playing them since my kids have gotten into them. One of my favorites is an old version of EA Sports’ NCAA Football. I like to be Michael Bush, because the former University of Louisville star, in this game, is Superman.

He can do anything. Bounce off tacklers. Run over them. Run through walls of defenders.

Almost every time I play, I think about that moment when Bush went down against Kentucky in the first game of his senior season. And it occurs to me that even while the real Bush was struggling pretty seriously with recovering from that broken leg, little cyber Michael, courtesy of EA Sports, just kept running.

And then there’s this: While Bush’s financial future was very much in doubt as he sweated his way back through rehabilitation, little cyber Mike kept drawing royalty checks for the NCAA, which has a rights deal with EA Sports.

Similar thoughts must have occurred to many college football players. In fact, Sam Keller, a former quarterback at Nebraska and Arizona State, has brought a class action lawsuit against EA Sports, saying that it illegally profits from using images of college basketball and football players. Former Rutgers QB Ryan Hart brought a similar suit in New Jersey state court.

The players in the EA Sports games don’t bear the names of college players. But they do bear their likenesses. Florida’s quarterback in the game, for instance, isn’t Tim Tebow, but he does wear the same number, is the same size and has the same playing characteristics as the Gators’ QB.

And this seems over the line. There’s no question the NCAA makes big money off its athletes. Although it shouldn’t be forgotten that the NCAA plows a lot of money into its athletes. The vast majority of students playing college sports are playing in sports that do not generate revenue.

Those of us who believe that sports such as rowing, lacrosse, softball, tennis and many others are not only worthwhile sports, but provide important educational opportunities and scholarships for many, have to acknowledge that the money must come from somewhere. The high-exposure sports pay the bills.

But this is too much. If specific individual athletes are going to be marketed, then they should share in the proceeds. Period. And while, yes, they receive scholarships, the NCAA also allows schools to deemphasize academics with demanding travel schedules and late-night games.

As it has increasingly given in to commercialism, the NCAA has created this dilemma for itself. And it has opened the door for the courts to solve it.

Here’s some irony: The NCAA could use money that Keller and others helped generate to fight the claims of those players in court. And the NCAA will fight vigorously.

Most people, myself included, are not to the point of saying players should be paid. And separating those whom the NCAA markets heavily from those it does not creates a class system in college sports.

But something has to give. As Penn State professor Malcolm Moran has suggested, perhaps it’s time for universities to pay not just tuition but all incidental expenses of athletes.

Or maybe those whose jerseys are sold and whose likenesses are prominent in video games should have money paid into a trust for post-graduation use — but only if they graduate. (Remember, some are using the NCAA as much as the NCAA is using them.)

Whatever the case, athletes are pressing the issue now. And it’s about time.