Guest Post: NCAA Athlete Lawsuits

ncaaToday’s post is courtesy of guest blogger Amanda M. Miller, a current Sports Business/Marketing MBA student at Arizona State and summer intern for Navigate Marketing.

In the last three months, the NCAA has come under attack on multiple fronts. First, lawsuits were filed (separately) by former Rutgers football player Ryan Hart and former Arizona State quarterback Sam Keller against Electronic Arts (aka EA Sports) and the NCAA for essentially using the likeness of collegiate athletes without compensating them. Then, former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon filed a lawsuit against the NCAA for the use of former players’ likenesses without compensation.

The NCAA is a multi-million dollar business. Revenues in 2008 were over $660 million (see the NCAA 2008-09 budget) and a negative resolution to these lawsuits would seriously jeopardize the largest chunk of that income. When you consider that 89% of last year’s revenue came from “Television and Marketing Rights Fees,” it becomes obvious that this is going to be a contentious fight.

EA Sports and the NCAA will throw everything but the kitchen sink into this lawsuit to protect their interests. I think what it comes down to is the question of whether major college sports (basketball and football mainly, baseball to a certain extent) have lost their amateurism.

The NCAA has always stood behind the ‘contract’ all collegiate players sign that allows the NCAA the use of their name and likeness. O’Bannon is contending that that very contract is only in effect while the player is competing for an NCAA institution. Once the player leaves college, they regain the rights to their image. Classic games are often re-run and there is a solid argument that the players in those games should get royalties each time it is re-aired. Championship DVDs and replica jerseys with former players’ names on them are sold on a daily basis, with the revenue going straight to the NCAA.

With respect to the EA Sports case, NCAA bylaws prohibit the use of the names and likenesses of athletes for commercial purposes. Does the fact that the University of Florida is quarterbacked by a 6′ 3″ left-handed player wearing the number 15 in EA’s NCAA Football 2009 mean they are ‘using’ the likeness of Tim Tebow? Keller contends that in the 2005 edition, Arizona State’s quarterback showed an unmistakable resemblance to him: same jersey number, same height and weight, hair color and home state. It’s this uncanny similarity that prompted him to file the lawsuit.

Now, I feel slightly differently when it comes to paying collegiate athletes outright for competing. Many of them get scholarships and, if you look at it like the summer internship that I’m participating in, for a reduced (or no) salary, the player (intern) gets the opportunity to learn on the fly, impress possible future employers (NBA or Navigate Marketing as the case may be) and network with those in their chosen career field. So I could argue pretty heavily that the NCAA players do get ‘paid’ just not with a paycheck every two weeks.

These lawsuits are a different story though. In one case, the NCAA is profiting from the very athletes that they are no longer paying. A simple solution to the O’Bannon lawsuit would be to give former players a royalty for each game re-aired, DVD or jersey sold, but only after that player is no longer actively competing in NCAA competition. Once the player cashes one of those royalty checks, any remaining eligibility they have would be erased.

The EA Sports lawsuit is a more slippery slope. How close of a resemblance does a CGI figure have to have to a living person before it’s considered his/her ‘likeness’? Many in the college ranks, and even those in the professional realm, should pay attention to these cases. Their resolutions will have reverberations in marketing deals for years to come.

One thought on “Guest Post: NCAA Athlete Lawsuits

  • August 6, 2009 at 10:13 am
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    Some have proposed setting aside accounts that would save royalties the collegiate athlete makes for the univeristy during their college career, and then release that to the player once they have either graduated or moved on from the university and collegiate athletics.

    Over a 4 year basketball or football scholarship, student athletes have “made” between 200,000 to 250,000 by the athletic department paying for their education. If the student is from out of the state of the university, the can also apply for a Pell Grant to receive more money. They are given per deim, perscriptions provided by trainers, medical and health benefits provided by the schools, monies from opportunity funds tht can help them with various problems or random circumstances… Plus, books, room and board, and the opportunity to be marketed by the university of their choice as a superstar college athlete – which could possibly improve their draft status, award recognition, and more.

    In the end, it is true to some degree that student athletes are being exploited as athletic departments move even more towards businesses in likeness; however, they are student athletes and have signed legal documentation to attend that school and promote them in athletic endeavors. There would be so many questions to answer about “likeness”, how to valuize how much your image is worth on the game as it refers to use, and more….

    If EA lost this case, no one would ever buy another college sports video game. There would be no appeal to the audience because they wouldn’t be able to play with their favorite player. Its not realistic. If I were an athlete, I would be so happy to have my image on their game and understand that I am still a student first and foremost.

    On the side of the former players whose things still get sold… I don’t believe they have much of a case at all. To far gone and they have already gotten paid in the pros most likely. Its like the NFL who owns all the player’s jersies… college athletic’s own that image when the prospecitve student athlete signs that contract to attend school.

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