NCAA video game move means nothing

July, 18, 2013
7/18/13
10:00
AM ET

The NCAA is confusing. Let's count the ways.
  • It is an association of 1,281 schools, conferences, individuals and organizations that are, despite that last "A," frequently at odds.
  • The representatives of this association negotiate eye-popping contracts for the rights to the NCAA basketball tournament, but the organization proper is relegated to a regulatory role where football -- and its massively corporate, massively lucrative postseason -- is concerned.
  • It is a nonprofit that rakes in about $800 million in revenue a year -- and pays its president $1.7 million -- almost all of it from the NCAA tournament. Football money goes to conferences and thus individual universities, who never draw as much discrete scrutiny as "the NCAA" itself, even though, you know, they are the NCAA.
  • All of this is made possible, of course, by the (essentially) unpaid efforts of 18-to-22-year-old athletic prodigies. This arrangement has been zestfully billed, happily accepted, and robustly defended as not only a different form of athletic competition but a better one -- morally right and pure and true, bound to platonic ideals, free from the crass capitalism of the pros -- for 100 years. The whole thing is an American anachronism; there's nothing else in the world like it.

See what I mean? And those are just the basics! There is all sorts of second- and third-level weirdness that pervades the NCAA culture -- the dense bureaucracy, the slippery slope-obsessed rules philosophy, the lack of actual legal authority, the desire to evince said authority, "vacated" wins, bagel toppings, and on and on and on. You can spend a lot of time thinking and writing about the NCAA and still feel bewildered by all this. It's like trying to understand modern finance. Every time you think you're there, another mole pops out of another hole.

Wednesday evening offered a classic example to this effect. That's when the NCAA announced it would cease to license its logo and brand to Electronic Arts, the video game behemoth that publishes the massively popular "NCAA Football" series.

This, thankfully, is not hard to understand. When former UCLA star Ed O'Bannon saw what he believed was his likeness being used in "classic teams" modes in the now-defunct EA "March Madness" title, he sued both the NCAA and EA Sports. O'Bannon v. NCAA has a big appetite, and it keeps chomping away, evolving from a retroactive likeness rights dispute into a full-blown antitrust case that threatens to end the entire amateurism party. The NCAA recognizes this, and recognizes how horrendously bad it looks to keep pumping out games that do "Yeezus"-level first-week sales numbers at $60 a pop:
"We are confident in our legal position regarding the use of our trademarks in video games," the NCAA 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."

The "current business climate" being the one in which celebrated civil rights journalists spend thousands of words essentially calling you a cynical, exploitative cartel; the one in which universally respected news magazines maintain legally disputed portions of your student-athlete statement on their websites; the one in which "South Park" just straight up calls you slave owners -- that business climate, you mean? You know what? It probably isn't a good idea to keep slapping your logo on video games! The "current business climate" doesn't seem to care for that!

Anyway, so here's the truly remarkable part: EA Sports is going to keep making a football video game. That video game is going to keep using real schools and "fake" players, just like it does now. But, wait, the NCAA is taking its name off the game! How is this possible?
"Member colleges and universities license their own trademarks and other intellectual property for the video game," the NCAA said in a statement. "They will have to independently decide whether to continue those business arrangements in the future."

The Collegiate Licensing Company, which manages the trademarks of the majority of the colleges in Electronic Arts' NCAA football video game, said Wednesday it would continue to work with the video game maker for future editions of the franchise.

"EA Sports' trademark licensing agreement with the NCAA is set to expire, and the company will be re-branding its college football game so as to exclude the NCAA's name and marks," said Andrew Giangola, spokesman for IMG College, which owns CLC, in a statement.

Ah, yes, the IMG-owned Collegiate Licensing Company. This is among the greatest of the next-level weirdness that permeates college sports: The NCAA as an organization doesn't handle the licensing and trademarks for most colleges. The CLC does. It's the company that puts jerseys in stores and hats on racks and video games in Babbage's Amazon, and it negotiates on behalf of much of the NCAA's membership -- with individual universities -- on an individual basis. The NCAA brand is just that -- a brand. Four letters. That's it.

If schools want to keep making money from licensing their names and stadiums and mascots (I can't wait for the next generation consoles; I hear you can actually see the flies on Bevo's back!), they can tell the CLC to go right ahead, and the college football video game will live on. In fact, they already have a name, a source told ESPN Wednesday: "College Football 15."

As one of your humble author's favorite video games sites, Polygon, reported Wednesday, EA Sports isn't even pretending to lay low:
"This is simple: EA Sports will continue to develop and publish college football games, but we will no longer include the NCAA names and marks," said [Andrew] Wilson, executive vice president of EA Sports. "Our relationship with the Collegiate Licensing Company is strong and we are already working on a new game for next-generation consoles which will launch next year and feature the college teams, leagues and all the innovation fans expect from EA Sports."

By the way, CLC is a co-defendant in at least two of the NCAA's ongoing O'Bannon-related antitrust lawsuits, to which a current college athlete is expected to be added by the end of this week. EA Sports is a defendant, too. The people who move the video game money are charging ahead undaunted.

The NCAA is clearly freaked, but the NCAA is just an idea. In the video game racket, the NCAA might as well not even exist. Wait: Maybe the NCAA doesn't exist? Maybe all these legal tangles -- universities apart from the sports association that defines them, likeness rights arguments versus common sense, "amateurism" amid billion-dollar revenues -- are what the machines from "The Matrix" think will best sate us in our gooey slumbers?

Maybe it's all in our heads. Maybe we have to get existential to grok all this. I don't know. I've tried everything else.

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