Wednesday, May 13, 2009

soapboxing: the player compensation edition

Because there are those whose livelihoods depend on coming up with timely and readable column material, a couple of events in the zeitgeist of late are likely going to conspire to elicit a small parade of columns on this very topic. The question at hand: should college athletes be paid for what they do?

One event is the absolutely shocking revelation that the evidence continues to pile up against the USC program regarding who paid money to whom. My stance is basically what you'd expect: as a fan of a team that the NCAA bombed back to the Stone Age following a particularly nasty booster scandal (that'd be Michigan, just to avoid any confusion), I hope the NCAA will do the same to USC given that these allegations appear to be about as serious - but don't expect it to. Especially not the football team.

That's not the main thing, though. The mainer thing than that is the lawsuit against Electronic Arts that's currently in its infant stages, filed by former college quarterback Sam Keller. This promises to be a story and a half. Early returns say this thing has wheels. It's not hard to see why. EA will say that they don't use anyone's names, and they don't. This is not likely to fly. Reason is this: Let's say you are a 5'9", 180 lb, 34-year-old, glasses-wearing, Volvo-driving English teacher at East Bum Middle School in East Bum, Virginia who stops at Dunkin' Donuts for coffee and wears red polo shirts to work every day. And then let's say I write a book where the main character is a 5'9", 180 lb, 34-year-old, glasses-wearing, Volvo-driving English teacher at East Bum Middle School in East Bum, Virginia who stops at Dunkin' Donuts for coffee and wears red polo shirts to work every day and is sleeping with all the boys in his seventh grade class. Yeah, you're not going to like that very much, and you will probably see me in court, won't you? And you'll win. The lack of specific names is not going to put the brakes on Keller's case.

The most damning thing for EA is that last year, a court awarded a group of retired NFLers $28 million from the NFL Players' Association for collaborating with EA to scramble their identities on the game so they wouldn't have to pay them royalties. It's no coincidence that Keller's case is on the street now; they're not only armed and emboldened by this verdict, they're enabled by it. As ex-Packer Herb Adderley says in the article linked:

If you look at the 1967 Green Bay Packers in that game, you'll know that the only left cornerback that year had to be Herb Adderley, but they scrambled my face and took the number off of my jersey. Yet, they had my correct height, weight and years of experience.
That's even less detail than in the new claim, where the college players have their numbers on their jerseys.

The problem is this: EA will also claim they're licensed to do what they do by the NCAA. Which is true. The NCAA allows EA to use the logos and everything else associated with college football. This is no different from, say, the NFL, except for one major detail: EA has to get permission from two entities instead of just one. In order to use the actual name "LaDanian Tomlinson", EA gets a license from the NFL Players' Association as well. There is no such association for college players. EA is shrewd. They're like the Wal-Mart of game makers. They didn't get where they are by not knowing their shit about the legal realm, because they've been toeing the monopoly line for years now and totally getting away with it. Their sharp lawyer-types are going to point the finger at the NCAA, which is also named in the suit. After all, the NCAA gets EA's money fair and square for this. And here, again, I'd say EA has a point.

So, what's the NCAA going to do? They have a problem on their hands. These issues - USC and EA - are linked. Players take money from boosters (which get that money from the school) because they think they should get paid when the university makes money off of them. They see it as their fair share. The money made off these athletes is, in fact, the primary argument in favor of paying them, and the fact that Electronic Arts is making mega-squillions off the players' likenesses (if not strictly their names, technically) is now in the limelight thanks to the lawsuit. The NCAA is going to squirm, and they're going to fight tooth and nail to stop payments directly to the players; this is the same organization that barred Jeremy Bloom for taking endorsement money totally unrelated to any of his actual college activities.

Right up front, though, I don't think college athletes should be paid. How do you apportion this fairly? If the University sells a whole mess of #10 jerseys this year, well, they didn't pick that number at random, nor did they randomly pick #20 or #37. Clearly, the schools themselves are selling particular players. So....

- If you divvy out money equally to all the players on the football team, you do not solve the problem of the star player walking through the bookstore and seeing his jersey on the rack and wondering why he doesn't get a cut of that. The backup punter gets the same money he does and all that punter does at practice is jog a few sprints and scratch his ass, and then enjoys the best seat in the house during the game. One of the big arguments in favor of paying the players is, because players won't need money from boosters any more, it'll head off some of the booster activity. No it won't. Boosters have millions. They can outbid anyone for a players' loyalty. But if all the players are paid the same, you're back to square one.

- If you apportion the money based on how much money each player makes for the school, well, this isn't even worth talking about because it's not possible. How do you account for the value of each player? How do you figure how many tickets are sold because a backup linebacker pounced on a fumble and ran it back for a touchdown to win a game? This isn't even realistic because it's impossible to divide it fairly.

That doesn't even touch on the track stars, wrestlers, gymnasts, swimmers, volleyball players, and everyone else that really don't bring in a dime for the school. But how do you justify paying the football and basketball players and not the rest of them, too? Football players are already excused from class with a wink, a perk not typically granted to the cross-country team. Do you pay them all? As the commercial says, there are 380,000 student-athletes ("and just about all of them will be going pro in something other than sports," just so you know which commercial I'm talking about.) If you divide that by three (to roughly approximate Division I) that's 127,000 - pay them all even just a tiny $100 a month extra stipend, and the cost is $152 million a year. This is not feasible. Smaller schools would be killing programs left and right just to keep the costs down.

So maybe you just pay the football and basketball players, the ones that video games get made out of. I say this is a crock. Football and basketball players are already the best-taken-care-of people on any campus. Leave aside the free education ($80-100,000), the free books, free food, and free academic tutoring. Football players never have to go to CVS for a Tylenol. They got painkillers in the team supply. They never have to go to Teeter's to get milk or various other groceries. They get it from the team supply. They never have to go to Best Buy to get a digital camera. They get it from the bowl game schwag bag. If they break their leg skiing, guess who pays for the treatment? How else do you get a free ride to school the way they do? Academics - but that doesn't give you all those great peripheral perks. ROTC - but your ass belongs to the military when you're done.

However. Sam Keller, or whatever lawyer put him up to this, still has a point. In no other area of American life can your likeness be used like this without any compensation. My best guess is that EA is going to have stop making their games so detailed, which would kind of suck because, well, I dunno if you ever played Tecmo Super Bowl, but the fact that you had to use "QB Bills" instead of Jim Kelly was really lame. But I'm not going to waffle on the notion that players shouldn't be paid. Because they shouldn't. The NCAA, on the other hand, shouldn't be accepting all this money on behalf of the players and doing God knows what with it.

If I were king, or the judge maybe, well, first off I wouldn't want this case, because the can of worms that a careless ruling opens up would be enormous. The sides will likely settle somehow because of this. This can be used for good rather than evil, however. A couple suggestions that don't involve random numberless players in video games:

- Force the NCAA to hold at least a portion of the EA money for the players in the game until after their eligibility is up. They get this money if they actually graduate and don't get themselves in any major kind of trouble with the law. A great carrot-and-stick for coaches to use on their guys to keep them out of shenanigans. This would get players paid directly (so I'm not 100% in favor of this idea) but the NCAA would get to keep its precious amateur status.

- Require the NCAA to set up a trust, started with punitive damages from the lawsuit and fed by the EA licensing money. This trust can be used to help players with a real demonstrated financial hardship, like that Clemson kid who was taking care of his brother. It can also be used to help former players who have fallen on hard times, presuming of course that they got their diploma since that's what the NCAA is so big on.

1 comment:

Bird said...

When I first read about this, it reminded me of the 2007 case with Vili. Vili is Hawai'i's mascot. He runs around half nude and beats on a drum. He sued EA because they simply included him in the game thinking he was an official mascot. He's really just a dude that shows up to all the games lookin' like a wild man making him unofficially their mascot and not part of their copyright/trademarkin' lawyer stuff.

So he sued and won. I think he got a quarter of a million. I'm not sure. If he could win, players can win. Wouldn't it be interesting if EA paid out to every player whose likeness was ever used in the game...since 1998 or something like that...