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NCAA will pay college players $20 million to settle video game lawsuit

Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

The NCAA will pay college football players, some of them currently active, $20 million to settle claims it used amateur athletes' likenesses without their permission in the official video games it licensed to EA Sports for the past 16 years.

The $20 million settlement, announced in advance of an even larger trial that still threatens big time college sports, settles all the claims arising from EA Sports' NCAA Football and March Madness/NCAA Basketball series. The NCAA had licensed college football games from 1997 to 2013 and college basketball games from 1998 to 2009.

This settlement covers players who competed in the NCAA's top divisions for football and men's basketball since 2005, and whose images "were included in game footage or in EA video games after 2005." Weeks ago, Electronic Arts and the Collegiate Licensing Company, the NCAA's licensing agent, reached a $40 million class action settlement which covers the same athletes going back to 2003, even if they were not in the video games.

The per-player amounts will vary in the EA Sports settlement and one assumes they will, too, in the NCAA's side of the deal. Average figures have suggested each player will receive $400, though it will depend on how many times their likenesses were used, and when.

"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," Donald Remy, the NCAA's chief legal officer, said in a statement.

Remy added that the NCAA will grant a blanket eligibility waiver for any active athlete so that he may receive money from this settlement without it threatening his eligibility. "In no event do we consider this settlement pay for athletics performance."

In a statement, Steve Berman, the lead attorney for the group representing athletes, pointed out that "this is the first time in the history of the NCAA that the organization is paying student-athletes for rights related to their play on the field, compensating them for their contribution to the profit-making nature of college sports.

"We've long held through our various cases against the NCAA that the student-athlete is treated poorly in everything from scholarships to safety," he said. "This settlement is a step toward equity and fairness for them."

The NCAA ended its licensing agreement with EA Sports in 2013 as legal setbacks increased the organization's legal exposure and stoked public opinion against it. EA Sports was prepared to go ahead without the NCAA's licensing. But as several athletic conferences and universities made public statements they would exit their licensing with EA as soon as possible, the publisher pulled the plug on the series and reached its settlement with the players.

Electronic Arts had been paying about $500,000 annually to the NCAA just for using its logo and name in its two products; university symbols were handled individually though the Collegiate Licensing Company set the rate and was the pass-through for all of those payments, whether it represented those universities or not.

No university or athletic conference ever was a defendant in these lawsuits, brought by former college quarterbacks Ryan Hart and Sam Keller, and former UCLA basketball standout Ed O'Bannon.

"We began this case five years ago with the knowledge that the NCAA and member schools were resolute in keeping as much control over student-athletes as possible," Berman said. "But we were equally resolute that anyone — even a student-athlete playing under scholarship — should not be exploited for profit, especially by the organization that vowed to prevent the athlete from exploitation."

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