While current NCAA players fight for their right to make money, a large group of former college football players scored a major victory Thursday.
Shortly after Electronic Arts announced it would stop producing a college football game beginning next year, the video game company -- together with Collegiate Licensing Company, which holds the licensing rights to the trademarks of the majority of colleges and universities -- filed papers to the U.S. District Court in Northern California that it had settled its case brought by former players.
Although the video games did not use their names, the former college athletes alleged EA Sports used the same jersey numbers, heights, weights, skin tones, hair colors and home states in the in-game bios, not only without their permission, but without compensation.
Steve Berman, managing partner of the law firm Hagens Berman, who served as co-lead counsel in the class-action lawsuit brought by the players, acknowledged to ESPN.com that a settlement had been reached, although the specific terms will remain confidential. Berman said negotiations started in earnest the past few weeks on the heels of an appellate court affirming in July a U.S. District Court decision that EA could not use a First Amendment defense of free speech.
After the sides met with a mediator, they put the finishing touches on a settlement, which Berman says will include between 200,000 and 300,000 former college football players whose likenesses were used in the game.
Berman would say only that the settlement would provide the ex-players with "something substantive." He said a list of players with their current addresses will be compiled and that he hopes, once the court approves the settlement and the money is paid out, the players can get checks sent to their current residences instead of having to claim the money.
"When we filed the case, we felt very strongly that EA's appropriation of student-athletes' images for a for-profit venture was wrong, both in a legal sense and from a more fundamental moral perspective," Berman said in a statement. "These guys were busting their butts on the field or the court trying to excel at athletics, oftentimes to help win or maintain scholarships so they could get an education.
"Students agreed that by being student-athletes that they could not exploit their personal commercial value, an agreement they lived up to. The same cannot be said about the NCAA or its partner Electronic Arts."
For its part, EA Sports -- which will not admit any wrongdoing as part of the settlement agreement -- said in a statement Thursday that "we follow rules that are set by the NCAA -- but those rules are being challenged by some student-athletes."
EA Sports said the decision will not affect its support for "NCAA Football 14," which was released in July. The Redwood City, Calif., company also said it is working to reassign staffers who worked on the game.
The NCAA said earlier this year that it would take its name off the game, but that does not absolve the governing body of previous legal exposure. With EA Sports and CLC dropped as defendants, the NCAA now will be litigated against alone in the class-action lawsuits spearheaded by former college quarterback Sam Keller and former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon.
The NCAA's chief legal officer, Donald Remy, told USA Today that the NCAA was "not prepared to compromise on this case."
Spokeswoman Stacey Osburn said Thursday that the NCAA could not comment on the settlement without knowing the terms.
The settlement comes just five days after the most visible protest by college football players, who are seeking to improve their rights. Georgia Tech quarterback Vad Lee, Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter and several others wrote "APU" -- All Players United -- on their game-day gear Saturday. It was done to protest the NCAA's treatment of athletes on issues ranging from concussions to compensation.
One lawyer involved in the case suggested Thursday's settlement means current players now will be entitled to compensation, too.
"Today's settlement is a game-changer because, for the first time, student-athletes suiting up to play this weekend are going to be paid for the use of their likenesses," said Eugene Egdorf, a Houston-based lawyer who litigated on behalf of the former college players. "We view this as the first step towards our ultimate goal of making sure all student-athletes can claim their fair share of the billions of dollars generated each year by college sports."
EA Sports provided athletic departments with more licensing royalties than any other non-apparel licensee, according to data released by CLC.