A federal judge certified a class-action lawsuit Friday aimed at the heart of the "amateur" status of college athletics, hoping to force the NCAA to give student-athletes a share of the lucrative licensing fees paid by video game makers for their likenesses.
The suit, In Re NCAA Student-Athlete Name & Likeness Licensing Litigation, was filed by twenty-five current and former student-athletes in 2009 who played for NCAA Division I men’s football and basketball teams between 1953 and today. Most of the plaintiffs allege that the NCAA violated federal antitrust law by conspiring with video game makers Electronic Arts and broadcasters to restrain competition in the market for the commercial use of their names, images, and likenesses. Four of the group have accused EA and the NCAA of appropriating their likenesses in games in violation of their rights.
Friday, U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken of California's Northern District ruled that the lawsuit may go forward as a class. If it is successful, the NCAA may be obligated to place a portion of the fees it receives from EA into a trust fund for student athletes, to be paid to them after they end their college athletic eligibility. Student-athletes may also be able to negotiate separate deals for payment with game makers, which would upend the amateur model in college athletics.
In her ruling, however, Wilken did not allow the plaintiffs to sue for financial damages for past losses. Trying to figure out which players had actually been on the field, and for how long, in order to split up a monetary reward appears to be too difficult for a court to figure out, she said. "Plaintiffs would have to cross-check thousands of team rosters against thousands of game summaries and compare dozens of game schedules to dozens of broadcast licenses simply to determine who belongs in the Damages Subclass," she wrote in her ruling. "This is not a workable system for identifying class members."
The class contains all current and former student-athletes in the U.S. in an NCAA Division I men’s basketball team or football team "whose images, likenesses and/or names may be, or have been, included in game footage or in videogames" made by the defendants.