DALLAS — Oklahoma center Gabe Ikard laughed when asked about the latest — and last, at least in its current form — edition of EA Sports' popular NCAA Football video game franchise.
“I look homeless,” Ikard said of ‘C #64,' his video-game counterpart on NCAA Football 14. “I have a receding hairline and I'm frowning — I mean legitimately frowning. I have serious male-pattern baldness going on. ... It's bad.”
A few physical objections aside, there's no question that the character is based on Ikard's likeness, just like “CB #14” is Aaron Colvin and “FB #33” Trey Millard.
The names are omitted because the NCAA won't license the use of current student-athletes' names, but EA Sports' college football and basketball games have — for years — included rosters that are close to perfectly accurate in terms of jersey number, player skill ratings and other attributes.
“It is very interesting how much money they make on the game, and how everyone gets paid but the guys that are on the game,” Ikard said.
Compensation for college athletes has been hotly debated for years, but the idea of fundamentally changing their amateur status has picked up incredible momentum with former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon's high-profile lawsuit, filed in 2009 against the NCAA, EA Sports and the Collegiate Licensing Company for profiting off the likenesses of former athletes in video games.
Then earlier this month, six current college football players were added to the suit. If a federal judge certifies the group as a “class” later this summer, plaintiffs will be able to seek damages relating to anything that profits off student-athlete likenesses, including the lucrative media-rights deals between conferences, schools and television networks.
The case is expected to reach a trial next summer.
In the meantime, the NCAA has taken steps to distance itself from the video game controversy.
This month, major college athletics' governing body chose to not renew its contract with EA Sports for future football video games. EA has vowed to continue producing college football games, which won't include the NCAA's name and logo.
In a statement announcing its decision, the NCAA said it has “never licensed the use of current student-athlete names, images or likenesses to EA,” but that individual universities could continue to license their own trademarks.
“I know that we're a group that brings in a ton of revenue for the school,” Millard said. “It's a million-dollar industry. Especially when you have the games added onto that.
“It's just us without our names on it. Then you can download the names after you had the game for a week. It's not so much a ‘likeness,' as it's just us.”
A common argument against player compensation is that they're already paid in the form of a free education that includes tutoring, housing and other special benefits rarely afforded to other students.
“Just a couple more hundred dollars,” Colvin said when asked what he believes would suffice. “Guys are hurting, man. I see it every day with some of my teammates. Guys are having to take loans out. Or guys are having to do certain things just to maintain, to pay rent, to pay their phone bill. Not everybody is as fortunate back home as some of the other ones.”
Not all current college football players believe they should be compensated, though. Oklahoma State junior receiver Josh Stewart, a first-team All-Big 12 selection last season, said he doesn't think playing should be about the money until he reaches the NFL.
“I just feel like it takes away from the NFL, if you pay college players,” Stewart said. “The NFL is the highest level, you have to make it to that level to get paid. And I think it would take so much away from college football if we got paid, because then it would be all about money, and that's not fun.”