Travonte Valentine and Michael Smith, two local high school football stars committed to play at the University of Miami in 2014, have been looking forward to seeing themselves in a video game since they were barely old enough to put on pads and a helmet.
“I started playing NCAA Football back when I was like 5 or 6. I always dreamed of the day when I would actually get to see the animated version of myself in it,” said Smith, now a bruising 6-2, 210-pound linebacker set to begin his senior season at Miami Northwestern next month.
“Everybody knows when you see yourself in the game you know you’ve made it,” said Valentine, a hulking 6-3, 323-pound defensive tackle and U.S. Army All-American at Hialeah Champagnat.
“I just hope they keep making the game. I’d be real disappointed if they stopped.”
In case you hadn’t heard, the NCAA, the Collegiate Licensing Company and EA Sports, which has manufactured college football’s most popular video game since 1998 and has reportedly generated more than $1.3 billion in sales in the U.S. alone, are fighting a high-profile lawsuit that says they owe billions of dollars to former and current players for allowing their likenesses to be used for free.
While EA Sports, which has offices in Maitland, has vowed to keep making the game in the future — even after the NCAA said earlier this week it will no longer allow it to use its logo starting next year, a lot of important questions remain unanswered.
The biggest: Will this finally be the landmark case that leads college athletes to being entitled to something more than tuition, room and board?
On Thursday, six current college football players — none who play in-state — added their names to a group of 16 former college football and basketball players who have filed that suit. The case, filed by former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon in 2009 and includes NBA Hall of Famers Oscar Robertson and Bill Russell, also contends that both current and former athletes are entitled to 50 percent of revenue generated by NCAA and conference television contracts.
The six who added their names Thursday were Vanderbilt linebacker Chase Garnham, Clemson cornerback Darius Robinson, Arizona kicker Jake Smith and linebacker Jake Fischer and Minnesota receiver Victor Keise and tight end Moses Alipate. Keise is a former standout at North Broward Prep in Coconut Creek.
“These athletes are incredibly brave. They are well-aware of the risks of standing up to the NCAA, and yet they felt that this was the right thing to do,” Michael Hausfeld, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, told the Associated Press in a statement.
A federal judge in Oakland is still deciding whether or not turn the lawsuit into a class action, representing thousands of current and former athletes.
Such a ruling would be a big legal victory for the players, leaving the NCAA and its member schools to billions of dollars in damages.
“When you split all that money up by the thousands of athletes it’s probably not that much,” Valentine said. “But I guess it would be good to at least get some grocery money for being in a video game.”
Former Deerfield Beach High star Denard Robinson, now a rookie with the Jacksonville Jaguars, served as the most recent cover boy for the 2014 version of the NCAA Football video game.
Players at FIU and the University of Miami are not available to the media until fall camp begins in early August and could not be reached for comment according to sports information directors Chris Yandle (UM) and Joe Hornstein (FIU).
Hausfeld said the NCAA cutting ties with EA could provide greater freedom for EA to make deals with conferences, schools and even players.
NCAA spokeswoman Stacey Osburn told the AP the NCAA would reserve comment until it has had time to read the amended complaint filed Thursday. Osburn told AP in a statement that the NCAA’s business relationship with EA only pertained to the logo and name.
“Student-athletes were never a part of this relationship and plaintiffs’ attorneys know it,” she wrote AP. “Further, the $545,000 paid annually to the NCAA for the use of the logo and name goes right back to support student-athletes across all three divisions.”