May 07, 2009
If you know him at all, you probably know Sam Keller for one of five things: a) Putting up fairly ridiculous numbers, including a 461-yard, four-touchdown game in a near-upset over LSU, in an abbreviated stint as Arizona State's starting quarterback in 2005; b) Winning, then promptly losing, a high profile quarterback duel with Rudy Carpenter that led to Keller's transfer from ASU to Nebraska right before the '06 season; c) An odd case of parking lot rage; d) A penchant for being photographed with women you couldn't even exist in the same room with; or e) Briefly, a quarterback for the Arena League's Los Angeles Avengers.
Or, if you're like millions of adolescents and suspended adolescents, you might know Sam best as "QB No. 9," his licensing-friendly alter ego in EA Sports' best-selling "NCAA Football" series. Personally, I rode Video Sam and the Sun Devils to online dominance in NCAA Football 2007, and lamented his transfer that August mainly because my obsessive sense of pixellation-to-reality compelled me to play the less-effective Carpenter from then on. Because at no point, despite the NCAA-enforced absence of real player names from the games, did I have any question about who I was controlling: It was video Sam Keller. Same height, same weight, same number, same team. To my roommate at the time, I referred to him as "Keller."
Amount of money Sam Keller -- or any other player obviously represented on the games -- receives from sales of the massively successful games? Zero dollars, zero cents.
Which makes Keller's lawsuit against EA Sports for "blatant and unlawful use of [NCAA] student likeness" a fairly compelling one:
"With rare exception, virtually every real-life Division I football or basketball player in the NCAA has a corresponding player in Electronic Arts' games with the same jersey number, and virtually identical height, weight, build and home state," the lawsuit said. "In addition Electronic Arts often matches the player's, skin tone, hair color, and often even a player's hair style."
The lawsuit also contends that the NCAA looks the other way when gamers download rosters names from the Internet. On the most recent Playstation 3 version of the college football game, EA provides an option to download rosters created by other users.
Those 'user-generated' rosters are a mistake-filled crock, but that's besides the point, which is: Should athletes, who are strictly prohibited at great peril to their education and future from earning any money from their status, have any financial stake in the fortunes being made from selling their likeness?
This is a little bit different that asking flatly, "should college players be paid?" -- that lawsuit is still winding its way though the labyrinth -- because the money schools take in from television and ticket sales, etc., are technically for a team sport; fans pay to see the team, which in turn "compensates" the members of the team with free tuition, room and board, etc. Maybe you disagree, but it's an argument.
I'm harder pressed to find any justification whatsoever, though, for private entities that profit from a player's identity -- be it through video games, jersey sales, magazine covers, you name it -- with no obligation to the player whatsoever, financial or otherwise. Reggie Bush once claimed he could have made $100,000 off sales of his No. 5 jersey at USC, which might be a conservative estimate; it didn't have his name on it, but when someone buys No. 5 in cardinal and gold (or No. 15 in blue and orange, or No. 10 in burnt orange, or No. 2 in scarlet and gray ... you get the picture), they know whose image they're assuming, in the same way video game players know who they're controlling -- in most cases, they probably go ahead and enter the name, anyway. Maybe if your campus heroes were allowed to make an honest buck off their talents like everyone else, they wouldn't have to resort to the dishonest kind.
I'm not a lawyer, so I have no idea whether Keller has a legal case; odds are always that it will be settled with no wider repercussions or dropped when the bureaucratic weight becomes to heavy. But I do have a sense of fairness, and a considerable graveyard of smashed controllers at the hands of EA Sports. So give 'em hell, Sam.