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Don't Hate the Player: Are College Athletes Working for a Degree or Working for a Cartel? 

Wednesday, Jul 16 2014
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Former UC Berkeley running back Joe Igber has always resisted celebrity. He's never made a Facebook or Twitter profile; his Google trail is just half a page long, starting at Berkeley and ending with the web page for his engineering startup. In college, he was famous for tiptoeing off the field after football games, often barricading himself in the library while his teammates were out partying.

Yet Igber didn't flinch when friends said they'd seen him immortalized in a popular video game during his 2002 junior year, NCAA Football.

"It was made by EA Sports," Igber recalls, "and the slogan at the time was, 'If it's in the game, it's in the game.'" EA Sports, an imprint of the Redwood City behemoth Electronic Arts, took material from real-life college football games and reinterpreted it for Sony's PlayStation. Each starting player at Berkeley had a corresponding avatar with an uncannily similar physique.

"They don't put your name on it," Igber says, "but everything else — your weight, your height, your skin tone, the scale of your height relative to everybody else on the field — definitely, it's you."

EA Sports even went so far as to mimic Igber's style of play. He was known for falling anytime an opponent so much as breathed on him (a survival tactic for a 190-pound player who understood basic laws of momentum) and his character did the same. He compensated with incredible sideways motion, and so did his character — to such an extent that teammates nicknamed him "R2" for the joystick button they used to sidle.

Despite his apathy toward PlayStation, Igber couldn't pass up the urge to play a few times. Getting picked for EA's NCAA Football series (a kid brother to the company's Madden NFL collection) was a status symbol. "Everybody knew about it, and everybody wanted to be in the game," he says.

2002, the year of his NCAA Football debut, was also the year that Berkeley's football team, the famously hard-luck Cal Bears, had a major star turn. The university had just hired former Canadian Football League quarterback Jeff Tedford to coach its beleaguered squad, which had earned only one win the previous season. Tedford led the team to seven wins and five losses, and was duly named Coach of the Year for Cal's Pac-10 (now Pac-12) athletic conference. Cal won its "Big Game" against private school rival Stanford University that year, seizing the famous Stanford Axe, and generating enough football fervor to make Berkeley resemble a Midwestern college town — the sort where team allegiances matter more than political stripes.

And naturally, players like Igber began popping up in PlayStation games, just as their antecedents — people like '90s-era Cal running back Russell White — appeared in games for Sega's older system, Genesis.

"We [the characters] all kind of looked the same," White recalls. "We were just bronze figures, all capable of doing the same moves. But if you checked the numbers on each team, you could connect them to a [real] player."

The NCAA makes all student athletes sign a form each year through which they relinquish all rights to their images, even after they graduate. Athletes and lawyers who've challenged this practice say the form is "purposefully misleading," and that the athletes have to sign it under duress. White, who is 20 years out of his college career and depicted in Sega games that are now several iterations behind the current technology, still believes it's patently unfair.

"If they're using your image, they should pay you," he insists.

That's become a point of thorny, ongoing, national discussion. And it's now being hammered away in court.

In June, the National Collegiate Athletic Association offered its first small concession. It agreed to pay $20 million to erstwhile college football and basketball players to settle a suit launched by ex-Arizona State quarterback Sam Keller, who claims that the EA Sports videogames amounted to unfair profiteering.

That deal came shortly before another trial began in federal court in Oakland, in which former UCLA basketball star Ed O'Bannon accused the NCAA of a predatory conspiracy, commercializing the images of student athletes but denying them compensation. (O'Bannon's lead attorney, Michael Hausfeld, says it was advantageous for the NCAA to announce its $20 million EA settlement beforehand, to make it appear as though the videogame issue was resolved.) O'Bannon represents a class of plaintiffs who seek an injunction to end this practice. They demand that the NCAA enter into contracts with players upon graduation, entitling them to part of the billions in TV revenues and licensing fees that pour into NCAA coffers each year. Plaintiffs also want the association and its licensing arm to disgorge profits they've "unjustly" harvested from video games, TV contracts, sports broadcasts, DVDs of or rebroadcasts of classic games, T-shirts, jerseys, stock photos, trading cards, action figures, or any other revenue stream that deploys the athletes' image and likeness.

The trial took place over three weeks in June, in a fourth-floor courtroom where armies of lawyers debated an issue that's long overshadowed the business of college sports: Is the NCAA a well-intentioned mentorship program, or a plundering cartel? And are the athletes bright-eyed apprentices, in the same sense as, say, a violinist in the music department, or are they de facto employees who've been bilked into working for free?

Such questions are particularly unsettling at UC Berkeley, a progressive, public university that can't bear to see itself as an exploiter. Over the course of Tedford's 10-year employment, graduation rates for football players slid perilously; by 2013, Berkeley ranked last among 72 major college football teams in the U.S. The team was losing on the field, too, right as the university unveiled its $321 million stadium renovation and $153 million athletic center. Tedford was fired after the 2012 season. Then, Berkeley's Athletic Director Sandy Barbour stepped down this month, leaving behind a program walloped by controversy, and a school wallowing in debt.

The O'Bannon case remains open, and will likely be subject to lengthy appeals. If the plaintiffs prevail, though, it could turn college sports on its head. It might oblige schools like Stanford and Berkeley to make business arrangements with players, treating them as paid professionals rather than student amateurs. That might be deeply satisfying to former athletes like O'Bannon, who say they were burdened with sports full time throughout their college careers, and forced to masquerade as students.

About The Author

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan

Bio:
Rachel Swan has been a staff writer at SF Weekly since 2013. In previous lives she was a music editor, IP hack, and tutor of Cal athletes.

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