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Original Issue

Full Hearts, Empty Pockets

A college football player's inability to afford a video game that bears his likeness goes to the heart of a lawsuit against the NCAA

If Lucas Vincent is to be believed, Lucas Vincent is poised for a breakout season. The defensive tackle for Missouri, who had three tackles in 12 games as a sophomore last fall, goes by the handle @SamoanTaika96 on Twitter, where his bio refers to him as "LV The Demigod‚Ñ¢" and "The most ELECTRIFYING man in a #Mizzou uniform." To peruse the Demigod's oeuvre of tweets is to realize that his hyperbole is delivered with a wink. The tone of the 6'2", 295-pound redshirt is gregarious, mischievous, light. Vincent doesn't take himself too seriously, recently pointing out to a follower, for instance, that he was "being sarcastic ya fool" after being rebuked for noting that it was National Pecan Pie Day.

Vincent ventured into uncharacteristically serious territory on July 8—though he insisted the next day that his tweet was "clearly" a joke. On the eve of the much-hyped release of EA Sports' NCAA Football 14, a popular (and profitable—it has earned EA Sports a reported $900 million since its debut in 1993) video game, Vincent lamented on Twitter, "I wanna buy the new NCAA game but I also don't wanna be poor till September ... My likeness is on the game why do I have to pay for it?"

Thus did Vincent, in 138 characters, distill the unfairness of the status quo: Players sweat and bleed in the arena, but are not paid for their labor. Yes, they are (usually) awarded scholarships by their universities. But companies making fortunes on their skills and likenesses have never forked over a cent to the workers who help to make their profits.

The attention generated by Vincent's tweet caused a bit of discomfort within the Tigers' athletic department. "We prefer to let it go off into the night," said assistant director of strategic communications Patrick Crawford, explaining why he wouldn't be forwarding SI's request for an interview to Vincent. (What were we thinking, asking to engage a fourth-year undergraduate in a conversation about economics, ethics and antitrust law?)

Not sharing those misgivings: the Demigod himself. Asked by a reporter on Twitter if a stipend from EA or the NCAA would make his life easier, Vincent immediately replied: "Extremely easier! [I'd] be able to buy more groceries and be able to put more than $25 in [the] gas tank at a time ... Would be great lol but lets be real never gonna happen."

Not soon, perhaps. But never? Three days before Vincent's tweet, U.S. district judge Claudia Wilken made a potentially important ruling in Ed O'Bannon's antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA, in which the former UCLA basketball star and other high-profile ex-athletes—including basketball greats Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson, and former Nebraska quarterback Sam Keller—are challenging the right of the NCAA, the Collegiate Licensing Company and EA Sports to use student-athletes' likenesses without pay. Wilken ruled that the plaintiffs may add a current NCAA student-athlete to their complaint. Those instructions indicate that she may be inclined to certify O'Bannon's suit as a class-action suit on behalf of both former and current players. Such a lawsuit could end up being extremely expensive for the NCAA and its member schools. (Asked if he would consider joining the suit, Vincent toes Mizzou's line, tweeting back, "That's not for me I'm just here to play ball.")

While the original lawsuit focused on video games and other ancillary merchandise that used the plaintiffs' likenesses, lawyers representing them soon decided to up the ante for a cut of the TV money. They won an important battle last August, when a U.S. magistrate judge ordered the NCAA to turn over information about revenues received by its members from broadcast television, radio and Internet rights.

Armed with that information—and the potential inclusion of current players—the plaintiffs further expanded their complaint in January. Instead of claiming just a share of rebroadcasts, they amended the suit to demand a 50% share of all TV game revenues for Division I football and basketball. The NCAA objected, but its motion to prevent O'Bannon et al from going after the TV money was dismissed by Wilken last January. As O'Bannon lawyer Michael Hausfeld said, the defendants "are facing potential liability in the billions of dollars instead of [the] hundreds of millions." Hausfeld has asked for assurances from the NCAA that it would not retaliate against any as yet unnamed players. In a barbed reply, the NCAA's attorney, Gregory L. Curtner, described Hausfeld's request as "unnecessary," and accused his counterpart of "grandstanding."

Curtner's combative tone reflects the crouched, defensive attitude in which the NCAA now finds itself. On June 24 the ratings agency of Moody's Investor Service had revised the NCAA's credit outlook to "negative" as a direct result of the O'Bannon lawsuit. According to the report, "Increased public discourse about the best interest of student-athletes combined with highly publicized litigation could destabilize the current intercollegiate athletic system and negatively impact the NCAA and its member universities."

Another downgrade awaits the NCAA, says Moody's, if Wilken certifies the O'Bannon case as a class-action suit. (Her ruling should come down later this summer.) Should that happen it would ratchet up the chances of—at the very least—a pricey settlement. Years hence, after much more legal wrangling and a possible succession of appeals all the way to the Supreme Court, Lucas Vincent may find himself in receipt of a check that he might use to buy some groceries, fill the gas tank of his car and still have more than enough left to purchase EA's latest college football video game.



As a result of a lobbying effort by Riot Games, maker of the fantasy video game League of Legends, gamers traveling to the U.S. for the official LoL tournament in L.A. this fall will receive the same U.S. travel visas given to pro athletes.