College athletes get paid and I play NCAA video games guilt-free because of California | Opinion

We common folk like to tell athletes to “shut and dribble” and “quit whining, you get paid millions of dollars.” For thousands of college athletes, the chance of a huge payday often never comes.

The power structure in college sports is only now starting to shift. However, progress has come slowly and only after too many college athletes saw their talents and revenue-generating power exploited by their schools, their fans, the NCAA and even me and my family.


I thought about that on Thursday with the announcement that NCAA College Football 25 - a video game that was an obsession for me as a kid - will again be available for purchase on July 19, 2025. Its long-awaited return a decade after a historic legal settlement sparked the inner child in me. It also makes the 29-year-old journalist I am happy for future athletes who will earn money if featured in the game.

It’s in the game

Pick any night during college football season when I was a kid, and you’d hear screaming and yelling between me and my brother as we played NCAA College Football 2007 at our home in Tullahoma, TN.

For all my younger siblings out there who played video games, you know the heavenly bliss of beating your older obnoxious sibling in a game. I lived to serve my brother a nice slice of humble pie on the sticks. See, my brother in high school was the more athletic of the two. With his 6-foot-2, lean and muscular physique, he was highly sought after by the high school coaches. He played baseball, rugby and football.

My brother was great at everything, but I was even better at video games, especially NCAA College football. And my brother couldn’t stand it.

In one match I played as the University of Kentucky Wildcats and my brother was the University of Tennessee Volunteers. After one quarter the score was 21-0 in my favor and I was starting at a disadvantage because the game rated his team stronger than mine. In the gaming world, we call that being “skunked.” I loved every minute of it, but my brother wasn’t having it.

“You’re cheating!” my brother screamed at the top of his lungs after he gave up another touchdown. “There’s no way you’re beating me with Kentucky.”

So we restarted the game and kept playing into the night.

Our PlayStation 2 could burn a hole in the floor from how long we would keep it on, playing for hours.

Likeness battle

In 2014, EA Sports discontinued all of its college sports video games - and their use of college brands overall - because a notable California athlete, former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon., joined other former student-athletes in a class action lawsuit against the NCAA, EA Sports and Collegiate Licensing Company.

O’Bannon was a starter on UCLA’s 1995 national championship team and the NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player who saw his l likeness in the game NCAA College Basketball 2009 and felt he should be compensated.. This was almost a decade after his brief NBA career had ended. There was a character in the video game that resembled O’Bannon, from his face to even the jersey number he wore.

Late in 2009, O’Bannon filed his suit, which was combined with others by other athletes, alleging violations of the Sherman Antitrust Act. They contended that student-athletes deserve to be compensated EA and Collegiate Licensing Company, apart from the lawsuit, reached a $40 million settlement with O’Bannon and 20 other former athletes..

You could say the state of California has led the way in making college athletics more fair to college athletes.

Following O’Bannon’s transformative legal challenge, California passed the Fair Pay to Play Act in 2019, paving the way for any student-athlete to be compensated for their name, image and likeness. It also prohibits California colleges e from revoking scholarships from students pursuing endorsement deals. The law went into effect in 2023.

We shouldn’t make light of exploitive years before student-athletes could be compensated. Reggie Bush, the cover athlete on my NCAA Football 07 game, was publicly disgraced when he was stripped of his Heisman Trophy in 2010. A tailback for USC, Bush was found to have accepted thousands of dollars as a college athlete. Thankfully, Bush got his Heisman back in April, 14 years after it was taken from him. The Heisman Trust says that “enormous changes in the college football landscape” led to the decision to reinstate the trophy to Bush.

And they would be correct. Tons of change has come to college football and collegiate athletics. It’s time that we all shift our views as well.

At the root, sports are pretty awesome. They evoke so much joy and passion in us. For too long not enough people understood that collegiate sports made money for many people other than the players lacing up their cleats.

We have now entered a moment where the people on the field have a say in how their brand is used. And that’s alright with me.