College Athletes are More Than a Number, and Everyone Knows It

For many sports fans, a number is as identifiable as a name. Growing up far away from a professional team, those numbers didn't really imprint on me until I covered football for four years at college. Ever since, I remember uniform numerals not with a name, but as a name.

No. 85? Carl Reeves, one of our greatest defensive ends ever at N.C. State. Nineteen is Eddie Goines, the split end who set all the records that Torry Holt later broke. No. 7 was Hassan Shamsid-Deen, a redshirted freshman I remember only because he wore No. 7 and his name was Hassan Shamsid-Deen.

College Football USA '96, by EA Sports, didn't feature roster editing or sharing, but it didn't need that for me to know who was on the field for State. In my first year out of college I still recognized everyone, cycling through the substitution menu. No. 39, Carlos King, at fullback. No. 48, Morocco Brown, linebacker. No. 59, John Rissler, defensive line.

Remember, this was in 1995, on a 16-bit console. The only physically distinguishing trait of players in that year, as they appeared on the screen, was the color of their skin, for the few pixels in which that was exposed. In the menus, you could see their ratings, height and weight and that, combined with a position and that number, was enough. I showed the game to my roommate at the time, a recent graduate who also covered the team for three years.

"Oh man, they got Hassan Shamsid-Deen in this thing?" Ted said.

So I had to laugh when, in response to Ed O'Bannon's notorious lawsuit against the NCAA, Electronic Arts this week filed an "expert study" saying that fewer than 25 percent of football and men's basketball players are identifiable in video games they have published. That's bullshit, and it has been from day one.

Electronic Arts' own communications with the College Licensing Company admit that the games are coded and balanced with real-life rosters, and real life players on them. The "study" is not scientific, it is testimony in a civil action, which is to say it is necessarily self-serving. It was entered into the record to limit the size of the potential class action against EA and the NCAA, and/or the scope of the damages—or settlement—the publisher would pay if the players prevail. O'Bannon, former Nebraska quarterback Sam Keller and others are suing the NCAA and EA Sports for the unauthorized use of their likenesses—on sports apparel, in memorabilia and in video games—while they were in college or after they left.

In June, a federal judge will rule if the case can be a class action. If it is, the exposure to the NCAA and EA Sports will run well into the millions. It could reach billions. It could force the NCAA to pay players. The destruction to the NCAA's business model could be so comprehensive that the end of NCAA Football, my favorite video game, is among the least consequential of its outcomes.

If so, so be it. I say that as a lifelong fan of NCAA Football, knowing many of its developers—some of whom were NCAA football players themselves.

My publication history on this subject deserves some explanation. Over the past three years I've minimized or ignored the Keller and O'Bannon actions, using the editorial camouflage of not covering incremental developments in a court case (even though I did, for some. In one, I reported that Electronic Arts was dismissed from the complaint; shortly thereafter, an amended complaint brought it back to the suit). Underneath, personally? I didn't want the players' suit to succeed because of what it would mean for an experience I have enjoyed for nearly 20 years, from Hassan Shamsid-Deen (DB#7 in 1995) to Sterling Lucas (LB#7 in 2013)

But today, even if you believe that a full-ride scholarship is compensation enough for a major college athlete, it is impossible to fully express the contempt that Adidas and the University of Louisville deserve for monetizing the gruesome injury that Kevin Ware suffered in the regional final of this year's NCAA Tournament. Those ... fuckers ... sold a $25 t-shirt off of it. It goes without saying not a dime went to Ware or to his medical bills, because of the NCAA rules being challenged by Keller and O'Bannon.

I hope their attorneys bought one of these shirts. It should be entered into the record alongside EA's study. Kevin Ware is a reserve, the definition of the 75 percent that are supposedly just anonymous enough to not be identified by number alone. But the existence of this shirt puts the lie to EA's 25 percent claim.

The shirt read "Ri5e to the occasion." That is an unmistakable reference to Ware by his uniform numeral. That slogan—and good job, good effort to Adidas' well compensated, collar-popping marketers, coining a phrase I saw in my high school's weight room in 1988—covers its shame with the same-sized fig leaf that Electronic Arts has used for two decades. That shirt is bought because people see a Louisville No. 5 and understand it is Kevin Ware. Similarly, no intelligent person who plays these video games can look at NCAA 13's roster and say "Well, QB#2 at Texas A&M is not actually Johnny Manziel."

It blows my mind that this is a game made by the same publisher whose legal division decided that simply assigning an unlicensed real-world golfer's name to a computer-generated arc of a shot, constituted a risky, if not improper, use of his image in Tiger Woods PGA Tour. Yet you go into the menu of NCAA 13 and find RE#7 at South Carolina, who is also a 6-foot-6 African-American, and somehow that is not Jadeveon Clowney.

As liable as it may be in this suit, it is my belief the reason EA Sports reasoned that it could get away with that is because the NCAA said they could. I am not saying that EA Sports would, if given the chance, choose to make a college football game if it had to pay a group licensing fee to college football players, the same as it does to the NFL Players Association for Madden. I don't know the internal expectations of that product or its costs. I am saying that the barrier to such a thing even taking place is squarely on the NCAA. And this lawsuit has shown that EA Sports has asked the NCAA to loosen its position on the use of college athletes' names, a request that was refused.

EA Sports could, in the coming years (because this case is for sure going to the Supreme Court) lose a ton of money. People could lose their jobs making a game they care about because the NCAA and its schools were plenty happy to reap the growth of televised sports in the modern age, but unwilling to square its eligibility requirements with a world more modern than 1924. And sports video gamers—who this time of year are always complaining that there is no college basketball product—will see the loss of one more series.

All of that is regrettable. But if that's the human shield the NCAA is holding in this standoff, I'd still pull the trigger. This has gone on long enough. College athletes make millions for their universities. They deserve to be treated as more than a number. By the NCAA. By EA Sports. By me, and by you.

Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Sundays.