College Players Can Get a PS4 From a Bowl Game, But They Can't Be Paid

The Military Bowl is no one's idea of a major college football bowl game. It's a shitty bowl, in fact, inviting five-loss teams to stage background-noise football two days after Christmas. Despite that, every player from Maryland and Marshall will receive a PlayStation 4 for showing up this year.

Sports Business Journal looked at the gift bags all 35 bowls are giving to 70 teams—more than half of college football's membership in its top division—and the PlayStation 4, which launched on Nov. 15, appears to be the top prize. There are no other video games or video game hardware on the list.

I'm betting that Ohio State, which went from national title contender to the Orange Bowl (a Tourneau watch, fuck that), saw what a 5-loss Maryland team is getting and is extremely bummed right now. The Capital One Bowl is giving everybody on Wisconsin and South Carolina a "$450 Best Buy gift card and shopping trip." That's basically cash on the barrelhead. The Outback Bowl offers a $150 gift card, plus a watch and a ring. The Chick-Fil-A Bowl is giving out $300 gift cards.

The NCAA limits the overall value of these prize packages (and forbids players from re-selling the goods). But one thing I like to point out is the gift bags are worth well more than the $300 players are estimated to receive in a class-action settlement EA Sports has proposed which ends the lawsuit former and current players brought against its NCAA Football and NCAA Basketball series.

Hold it a minute, you say, wasn't EA Sports sued because, among other things, it couldn't pay players to use their real names, but used their likenesses anyway? Well, yeah. But players getting a $400 PlayStation 4, to say nothing of $300 Best Buy gift cards, is still kosher.

It's kosher partly because there are cash-value limits on what can be offered, and the gift bags go to everyone—all players, plus cheerleaders, staff and VIPs. The NCAA cracks down on "impermissible benefits"—cash, goods, direct pay-for-play—because they tend to go to star performers and big-time programs would have a big-time advantage signing big-time players if it was unregulated, or so the logic goes.

But the fact remains the NCAA refused to consider EA Sports' proposals to allow players to appear in video games under their own names, because that would mean cash compensation for performance on the field. Compensation that, if the EA Sports $40 million settlement is any guide, computes to less than the value of a bowl gift bag for their entire time in school.

I mean, this is bullshit. I asked Reuben Fischer-Baum of Deadspin to look at the past 10 bowl seasons, including the one yet to be played. In that span, just two teams that played in the NCAA's bowl division did not receive a bid to any bowl. Excluding the five teams who most recently were promoted to the bowl division in the past two years, just two of 120 universities' football teams did not earn any postseason bid in the past 10 years—New Mexico State and Eastern Michigan.

Another 41 schools had stretches of four or more years—an entire graduating class, for argument's sake—with no bowl appearance and no gift bag. Using that four-year standard, Reuben and I estimated there were 127 graduating classes that attended no bowl, out of 837 classes in that span. So, 15 percent of college football players have not gotten a gift package containing items worth more than $400.

That means the vast majority—85 percent—of college football players over the past 10 years are already getting compensated for their performance through this gift bag practice. (And many have received more than one goodie package; nine teams have gone to bowls in each of the past 10 seasons.)

It would seem that giving every player on every team $300 for the right to use his real name in a college football video game is more equitable than a gift bag at a bowl game, which by virtue of being a reward for a winning (or at least .500) season is, argumentatively, pay for performance, and players who sign with major programs can reasonably expect to receive more loot.

But that's the NCAA for you, and very few people who follow college football think its rules make any sense. It had to pass a rule just so current players who are part of the settlement class can collect the money they are due from this lawsuit. EA Sports is paying every player the cash amount of a gift bag most of them were already receiving, and I argue was willing to pay that to get real names in the game and dramatically increase sales. But the NCAA's pigheadedness wouldn't allow that. And that's what killed the series after a 17-year run.