NCAA settles suit with athletes over video game likenesses
Sam Keller and his teammates used to eagerly await the annual release of the NCAA Football video game, the popular EA Sports product featuring lifelike depictions of every major team.
Judging the ability of his on-screen persona in the game was all in good fun, but once Keller's career was finished the former Arizona State and Nebraska quarterback felt something wasn't right. The pros collected royalties from EA's Madden NFL game, for example, but the collegians couldn't.
"It's a great game, but it was flawed," Keller said. "It was wrong."
The NCAA announced Monday that it will pay $20 million US to former football and basketball players who had their images and likenesses used in video games, hoping the settlement will help keep amateurism rules intact for college sports.
Hours before the O'Bannon trial began in California challenging the NCAA's the authority to restrict or prohibit payments to athletes, the largest governing body in college sports said it had settled another potentially damaging lawsuit scheduled to go to trial next March. Keller's attorneys filed the class-action suit in May 2009 and contended the NCAA unfairly deprived college players of revenue.
"It wasn't until after I was done playing football that the light turned on in my head about what was really going on. When you're a student athlete you kind of become like a robot," Keller said in an interview with The Associated Press.
He added: "Friends would share with me, 'Hey bro, I won the Heisman Trophy with you.' ... Meanwhile, we couldn't sell a jersey or do autographs or anything to profit from our likeness. It was all big corporations."
The deal came a little more than a week after Electronic Arts agreed to a $40 million settlement of similar allegations.
The $60 million worth of settlements cover claims made in the Keller and O'Bannon cases against EA, along with two other cases, attorney for the plaintiffs Steve Berman said. The agreement announced Monday covers Division I men's basketball and Bowl Subdivision football players whose images, likenesses or names were included in game footage or in an EA video game after 2005. The $40 million settlement covers athletes to 2003, even if they were not in the video games.
Final details were still being worked out. How much each player gets will be determined by how many athletes file claims. Based on historical trends, Berman said, payments to Division I men's basketball and Bowl Subdivision football players are expected to range from $400 to $2,000 each.
U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken in the Northern District of California must approve the settlement.
Last July, the NCAA said it would no longer allow Electronic Arts Inc. of Redwood City, California, to use its logo once the current contract expired this month. That ended a lucrative business deal with the multibillion-dollar video game industry giant, which is well known for Madden NFL, FIFA Soccer and other games. EA Sports first began making an NCAA Football game in 1998.
O'Bannon trial still on the docket
Berman estimated that more than 100,000 athletes are now eligible to seek compensation over EA video games they contend relied on close depictions of college football and basketball players.
"With the games no longer in production and the plaintiffs settling their claims with EA and the Collegiate Licensing Company, the NCAA viewed a settlement now as an appropriate opportunity to provide complete closure to the video game plaintiffs," NCAA chief legal officer Donald Remy said.
The NCAA said current players who receive part of the settlement won't be at risk of punishment under rules that generally bar compensation for their athletic skills.
"In no event do we consider this settlement pay for athletics performance," Remy said.
With the NCAA increasingly becoming embroiled in legal cases, the playing field has changed.
CBS and Turner are paying the NCAA an average of more than $770 million per year to televise the men's basketball tournament, some schools are making millions more per year from deals made between television networks and conferences, and the new College Football Playoff will be putting another $7.2 billion over 12 years into the coffers of schools that play big-time college football. So when others profited from the video games, college athletes went to court to get a bigger piece of the pie.
Ed O'Bannon, the former UCLA basketball player, and other plaintiffs are asking U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken for an injunction that would allow athletes to sell the rights to their own images in television broadcasts and rebroadcasts. That trial began Monday in federal court in California.
While the long-term ramifications from the settlement in the Keller case are yet to be determined, the short-term implication is clear.
"Going forward, I think people will be on notice that if they are going to use players likenesses, they will have to pay for them," Berman said.