Today’s guest columnist is former basketball star and athlete-rights pioneer Ed O’Bannon.
When I heard EA is bringing back its college football video game, and offering players $500 to be in it, I thought: “Man, that’s great. It’s what we wanted when we brought our case 14 years ago.”
Then I said: “What took so long? It’s about time.”
It was 2009 when my buddy Mike Curtis invited me to his house to watch his son “play me” in a video game, NCAA March Madness, on Xbox 360.
I’m no gamer. I had no idea I was in a game.
I mean, why would I be in a game?
I’d been retired from pro basketball for five years and hadn’t played college hoops since 1995. That was the year my UCLA Bruins won the national championship, and later, it turns out, became a “classic” team in a video game.
It was very cool to be in the game. I got to play a character just like me, a 6’8 power forward with a left-handed shot. Number 31. The game character looked a lot like me, too.
My name wasn’t there but—as we later learned—players’ names were included but pulled before the game was published.
Funny how that works.
Then Mike told me the game cost him $60. He said it seemed “kind of crazy” I wasn’t paid anything.
As Americans, we have something called a “right of publicity.” It protects others from exploiting our identity. College athletes should have had the rights to their name image and likeness, just like any other American, but the NCAA prevented them from using those rights by creating rules that threatened their eligibility and their scholarships.
My goal was always to bring awareness to this injustice, and now we are finally seeing how current players are benefiting from exercising their rights.
The NCAA took their chances in O’Bannon v. NCAA—and lost—but right before the trial, EA settled by paying about $40 million to around 29,000 current and former players who were in college football and college basketball video games.
This was about basic fairness and treating college athletes like their classmates and other Americans.
You don’t need to be a lawyer to know that wasn’t right.
I know this: If EA brings back the college basketball game, my nephew who is a gamer and is 13 years old will be thrilled. I’ll pick up a copy for him. Maybe if they include the ‘94-95 Bruins I can sit and play with my avatar and show him how it’s done. From what I have read, the game should be better than ever. I’m sure EA will make more money even after compensating the players for their NILs.
Look, I don’t blame EA for not publishing a game sooner. The NCAA and colleges wouldn’t have allowed EA to use their intellectual property in a game where EA did right by the players.
With the help of my case, the Alston case and NIL laws, the NCAA has finally been forced to do the right thing.
O’Bannon is a retired NBA player and former UCLA basketball star who led a historic case against the NCAA for college athletes’ NIL rights. He also wrote Court Justice: The Inside Story of My Battle Against the NCAA with Sportico’s Michael McCann.