This week delivered a concrete example of what American college sports is all about: Control, over every aspect of the life of any player on any team at any of our universities. When the NCAA is digging in its heels on women's soccer, which its member universities all blandly classify as a "non-revenue sport" you know the organization's modern purpose is more about control than it is the money. With career bureaucrats, it usually is.
On Thursday, Electronic Arts acknowledged that 13 members of three national teams — Mexico's, Spain's and Canada's — had to be wiped from its upcoming FIFA 16 at the last minute. That's because the NCAA, which doesn't have a goddamn thing to do with this video game, said these players' appearance — legally secured with permission from their nation's soccer federations — would violate one of its rules and forfeit their eligibility.
The inclusion of 12 women's national teams in FIFA 16 is a long-overdue, centerpiece feature of the new game, which goes on shelves Tuesday. It's the kind of thing any loathsome monolithic organization would probably want to endorse, rather than obstruct, in the name of good PR: See? We create opportunities for all athletes, and it even leads to big-time recognition usually accorded to men's professional leagues.
When the NCAA is digging in its heels on women's soccer, you know it's more about control than money
The NCAA — the pigheaded, meddling, antiquated, sports-ruining NCAA — couldn't have any of that. It showed up like a busybody parent policing the postgame juice boxes and finger-wagged the whole deal. EA Sports capitulated because, however contemptible the NCAA's position, it would be even worse for a video game maker to do something it knows would end a soccer player's collegiate career — and in the case of two athletes yet to enroll, before theirs could even begin.
This kerfuffle is solely a case of the NCAA demanding others submit to its internal policy. It's not some law or international trade agreement. It's a set of rules that can and frequently are waived or excepted without invoking the cop-out of setting a precedent directing later decisions.
Not that the NCAA even observes precedent. Hell, it granted an exception not only this year and not only in this sport, but also for one of the women scratched from the FIFA 16 roster. That's the Canadian defender Kadeisha Buchanan, age 19, currently playing for West Virginia. This summer, in observance of the Women's World Cup that was staged in Canada, Buchanan (No. 14 below) appeared on a stamp there along with superstar teammate Christine Sinclair. That seemed to pose no problem for Buchanan's eligibility at West Virginia this year, even though it is technically a commercial endorsement (stamps cost money) and an extra benefit (it's usually an honor to be on a stamp) offered on account of her status as an athlete.
I don't know that for sure, I don't make up the definitions of "commercial endorsement" or "extra benefit" as they apply to NCAA eligibility policies. The NCAA didn't care to share its reasoning with me, either, as their well trained public relations professionals avoided or ignored my multiple requests for a comment on Thursday. That's what I expect of an institution, although non-profit and representing numerous public universities, as high-handed and unaccountable as the NCAA.
Double standards and made-up rules and mumble-mouthed concessions to a nation honoring one of its citizens is the norm for the NCAA. More than a decade ago, the NCAA ruled that Jeremy Bloom, then a football player for Colorado who also was a world-class skier, could not solicit endorsements for his skiing career because such compensation was inextricably tied to his fame as a football player. (Bloom was a punt return specialist, for God's sake.) Endorsements are of vital importance to Olympians and Bloom needed them as he competed to make the 2006 U.S. ski team. He sued the NCAA and lost, but the NCAA changed its rules later to allow athletes to accept compensation tied to one sport while remaining eligible in another.
When Bloom sued the NCAA he was forced to choose his sport, and lost two years of college football and all of the memories, friendships and personal fulfillment — you know, all the eat-your-peas bullshit the NCAA wraps itself in for those halftime ads during the billion-dollar basketball tournament it stages. Bloom will never get a chance at that again. It's nice the NCAA changed its rules, but why it couldn't do so before getting sued, why it couldn't support and celebrate one of its unique success stories at the time, I do not know.
A decade later the NCAA still is unable to support and celebrate 13 unique, commendable success stories, preferring to insist on rules that matter only to itself.
Per Electronic Arts, neither Buchanan nor any of the other 12 players "were to be compensated individually" for their appearance. What that means is EA (properly) paid some fee to these players' national associations to use their likenesses and others, on a group basis. The distribution of that money, if any is disbursed, is up to those federations' agreements with their players.
Those deals may respect NCAA amateurism rules or may have exemptions granted. Who knows. In the end, we're left to assume it's not any money that's the problem because the people making the game aren't paying the women. It's their appearance in the game itself that's the violation, probably because the NCAA construes it as the direct endorsement of a commercial product.
In my view, that's an intentionally broad interpretation — does every member of the NFL Players Association personally endorse Madden NFL 16? — in order to maintain control of an athlete's activities, as long as she wishes to pursue a collegiate career in her sport, anyway. That's not a trivial consideration, even for a top-flight performer. Given the still-nascent state of women's professional soccer around the world, and the repeated, abortive attempts to sustain a pro women's league in the U.S., our collegiate conferences may offer the broadest opportunities to play and develop outside of international competition, even if it's only for four uncompensated years.
EA and the NCAA are no strangers to each other, of course, as the publisher made more than 15 years' worth of college football and basketball video games with the NCAA's logo on them. Maybe that has something to do with the NCAA putting its foot down here. Who knows. Electronic Arts pushed back hard on the NCAA's decision and got nowhere. The statement EA made on the record was civil and polite, but the resentment and anger over this petty obstruction to its FIFA series — a global best seller across all genres — is palpable. This required a change to content on the disc. If one copy got out with these 13 on it, the NCAA would end their careers and blame it on EA. Good God, you'd think nuclear launch codes were involved.
The NCAA's purpose is not to protect or support its players. It is to control them.
In the civil lawsuit that ended the NCAA Football series and paid $60 million to former college football and men's basketball players, the plaintiffs' attorneys uncovered stacks of emails revealing university and NCAA administrators' knowledge of and feelings about being involved with the video game. The NCAA or its agents had full knowledge of EA Sports' practice of building each year's game with real-world rosters, then stripping out the names to skirt eligibility rules, as well as the law on use of likenesses. The NCAA knew of the features built into the game that allowed users to crowdsource and share rosters with the real names edited back in. That's why it chipped in $20 mil to the settlement package.
An official in one athletics department wondered if this type of abuse wasn't the thing the NCAA was meant to stop, that the NCAA was supposed to be there to protect its players from commercial exploitation, not endorse it at $545,000 a year to the organization, and $75,000 to the best schools. Since this practice continued, one can only guess either the question was rhetorical or the answer was no.
That's because the NCAA's purpose is not to protect or support its players, or create opportunities for them. Its purpose is to control them.
Roster File is Polygon's news and opinion column on the intersection of sports and video games.
FIFA 16: Women's national team trailer