How a college union could have saved NCAA Football

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It was the dream of every young football fan.

For a moment, they could play on the gridiron, in front of thousands of cheering fans. They could pick their height, their weight, their speed and ability. Or if they wanted, they could play as their favorite college football player.

It was just a video game. 

But many players also said that they realized they had "made it," when they turned on NCAA Football or NCAA Basketball and played as their virtual selves.

And though the games stopped being produced in 2013 - for fear of lawsuits from former players and college sports' governing body - a deal this week proved to be the final nail in the coffin.

The NCAA released a press release this week saying that it had reached a settlement with former athletes who had sued regarding the use of their likeness in Electronic Arts' famous college football and basketball games. It paid $20 million to end the litigation, which will be paid to class action members of the suit, including Division I institutions and former athletes for select schools.

It looks like the final suit regarding the video game series, after EA also paid a $40 million settlement to former players in May.

The sad truth though is that this all could have been avoided.

The NCAA sports games relied on the fact that avid sports fans, as well as video-game enthusiasts, would pay to play as their heroes on the gridiron.

Other sports franchises have tried to sell a college game without brand-name teams or recognizable players, but those have never succeeded to the extent that the NCAA games did. It was a titan of the industry, which profited from being able to roll out a new game every year and receive a ridiculous haul each time.

But the series' Achilles heel was that it relied on profiting from the likeness of the college football players, even if it didn't explicitly use their names. The video game characters had the same heights, weights, hometowns and other distinguishing factors, but were given numbers instead of names.

Still, U.S. law is clear that such factors are considered a part of a person's image, and thus, they have the right to manage how others profit off that image.

Since college sports, such as football and basketball, do not have a representative body, there was no way for EA Sports to get permission from every single college athlete to use their likeness.

Adding to the problem is that the athletes would have to agree to give up their image rights without being paid, because if they accepted any money they would lose their NCAA eligibility.

And who would let a company profit off their likeness without any financial incentive?

Now notice that EA Sports still manages the highly-successful NFL Madden franchise. 

That's because the video-game giant was able to sign an agreement with the NFL Players' Association and the NFL to use the players' likeness.

What if college sports had a similar union, which could speak for the players and, in a case like this, arbitrate on behalf of all them?

Then EA Sports would still be able to produce its college games. It made millions of dollars off the games - it could easily have paid whatever price a union would demand in order to gain the necessary licenses.

Then athletes would be able to be compensated for the use of their images, which drives an industry that is worth billions of dollars to schools across the country.

Then young football fans would still be able to play as their favorite players, fostering their love for sports and allowing them to virtually live out their gridiron dreams.

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