FENNO: NCAA-Electronic Arts fallout could make every avatar a ‘Johnny Football’

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Meet QB No. 2.

Maybe you’ve seen the soon-to-be redshirt sophomore at Texas A&M. Legs that churn like a running back and a strong right arm that’s made for coach Kevin Sumlin’s “Air Raid” offense.

The quarterback exists in the video game world of Electronic Arts‘ NCAA Football 2014 and, of course, is known in the non-pixelated world as Johnny Manziel. His digital doppelganger wears the same maroon and white No. 2 jersey, looks like him, runs like him, throws like him and weighs within five pounds of the actual Johnny Football. All that’s supposed to be a coincidence.

“The NCAA has never licensed the use of current student-athlete names, images or likenesses to EA,” the NCAA insisted in a press release Wednesday that’d send anyone who has spent five minutes with the video game into fits of eye-rolling.

Manziel doesn’t see a dime from the game that mimics him and generates revenue for everyone from the NCAA to Electronic Arts. Like the rest of us, the quarterback has to shell out $59.99 for a copy. Never mind that the Heisman Trophy winner is a key part of the product, along with hundreds of other big-name players. The NCAA’s make-believe amateurism insists that if Manziel received a cut of the game’s profits — even a complimentary copy — the earth would be knocked off its axis.

Faced with the not-too-distant prospect of actually sharing those proceeds, the NCAA instead declined to renew its contract with Electronic Arts on Wednesday. That’s the equivalent of kicking over video game controllers and sulking home — which, in this case, resembles a money bin, given the organization’s $871.6 million in 2012 revenue.

That rampant use of likenesses of current and former college athletes without compensation is at the heart of Ed O'Bannon’s long-running antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA and others. The case could transform college athletics and the NCAA’s hasty exit from the Electronic Arts deal is the first significant ripple outside the courtroom. This one, however, landed in your living room.

“We are confident in our legal position regarding the use of our trademarks in video games,” the NCAA’s press release said. “But given the current business climate and costs of litigation, we determined participating in this game is not in the best interests of the NCAA.”

Translation: admitting we’re wrong and giving athletes a cut of the proceeds (and, in the process, ending the amateurism charade) will cost more than simply ending the contract.

“They say they’re feeling confident about not giving away those rights, but their actions speak louder than their press release,” said Warren Zola, who teaches sports law at Boston College’s Carroll School of Management. “There’s no doubt this move was done, in part, to reduce potential liability.”

Emails revealed in the O’Bannon case show the liability worry is long-standing. There’s no accident to QB No. 2 having everything but Manziel’s name.

“I’m not an attorney,” former NCAA membership services staffer Bo Kerin wrote in a 2005 note, “but you will recall several in the room who are expressed real concern that this adds to the argument that student-athletes should be unionized and receive a cut of the profits, etc.”

In other emails, Electronic Arts staffers discussed using player likenesses and NCAA staffers admitted as much. But the legal heat generated by the O’Bannon case has grown in recent months, as the parties await Judge Claudia Wilken’s decision on whether to certify the lawsuit as a class action that could cover all current and former Division I college athletes. Dumping Electronic Arts is the NCAA’s short-signed, but predictable, reaction to preserve an antiquated system that eliminates free markets for the product, er, athletes.

“This is the evolution of the O’Bannon litigation,” Zola said. “But rather than continue to generate revenue and compensate college athletes, the NCAA has decided to terminate a professional relationship.”

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