Former BYU players call for return of NCAA video games

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Editor’s note: This story pairs with another titled “NCAA more vulnerable but players still ‘amateurs.’

Jackson Emery dribbles past an Air Force defender in the Marriott Center when he played for the Cougars. Emery received a check for around $100-$200 for his likeness being used in an NCAA video game. (Chris Bunker)

Former BYU basketball star Jackson Emery loved playing the NCAA football video games growing up, especially with his buddies every Saturday in high school.

“I would love to see (the video games) come back,” Emery said. “Hopefully they bring them back, and hopefully it opens the conversation on how we can compensate athletes even more.”

The release of new NCAA video games came to a screeching halt in the middle of an ongoing debate over student-athletes receiving a share of revenue the games generate – an argument largely based off time commitment to their sport and its effect on athletes’ futures.

“NCAA Football 14” was the last game to be released before EA Sports found themselves in a legal battle with former players who sued for the use of athletes’ images and likeness in the games. The lawsuit later evolved into the O’Bannon v. NCAA case.

EA Sports, which began the NCAA gaming franchise nearly 20 years ago, entered a $60 million settlement and sent payments to former student-athletes who appeared in both NCAA football and basketball video games between 2003 and 2014.

This was the first time in history college athletes had ever received direct financial compensation, something athletes hoped to accomplish for decades.

“With the NCAA tournaments and EA Sports making good money off of everything athletes were doing, it was good to see some of them getting a little bit of kickback,” Emery said.

Emery was one of several former BYU players who filled out the necessary paperwork and received a check in the mail earlier this year. He recalled his check being around $100-200.

Former BYU defensive back Ben Criddle received just $85.

“I thought to myself, ‘we sacrificed a wonderful video game for a small amount of money,'” the radio host said of his first reaction.

David Nixon, former BYU and NFL linebacker, had similar thoughts.

“Frankly, I personally would rather EA Sports have kept the $200 bucks and still have the game,” Nixon said. “I liked playing the game. I played it with my brother and I enjoyed it.”

Criddle also supported the return of the video games. He argued it was possible to compensate student-athletes without hindering the NCAA’s goal of amateurism.

Criddle said it would be a bad idea to give student-athletes direct financial compensation. Instead, he suggested placing a percentage of game revenue into a fund a player could only access post-graduation to help give them more of an incentive to graduate.

“I completely agree,” Emery said of Criddle’s idea. “If you run the numbers of how many of these student-athletes actually make it to the NBA or NFL or any professional league, it’s very minimal.”

Emery felt fortunate to have found a good job after graduation, but he pointed out that many student-athletes struggle to bounce back after their sport ends.

“People don’t take into account the facts of what happens to athletes,” Emery said. “Especially if they play football and get concussions, their bodies take the toll.”

Though athletes are compensated for tuition, rent, meals, and cost of attendance, it doesn’t add up to what universities, businesses, the NCAA and the media are making off the athletes, Emery said.

“I’m a big advocate of putting money into a retirement fund, a 401k, or a trust fund. We don’t need it immediately. But put it where one day it benefits me and my family and helps my kids go to college,” Emery said.

According to a survey released by the NCAA in 2008, most student-athletes reported the time they spent with their sport was similar to a full-time job, despite the NCAA’s 20-hour-a-week rule.

“I remember practicing on Christmas,” Emery said. “If you take into account film, traveling, practices, individual skill development, any visits to the doctor, or anything basketball related, it was fully taking over your life.”

Nixon remembers forfeiting family trips and outings because of football. He said the “full-time job” occurred not just during the football season, but the off-season too.

“When you have that kind of pressure on you to perform well, where are you going to dedicate your time?” Criddle asked.

Yet, former athletes also understand the other side of the argument.

“I also get the reason why people love collegiate athletics is because athletes aren’t playing for money,” Emery said. “But at the same time, if you aren’t paying the kids right away and you put it in some sort of fund, these kids will play just as hard.”

Former BYU basketball player Noah Hartsock received an $84 check from EA Sports and was happy to see players rewarded for being used in the game.

However, Hartsock wasn’t convinced there would be many changes in the way players are compensated. Athletes in lower profile sports as well as the number of smaller schools’ programs would make it difficult to be completely fair.

“There are so many college athletes. Where do you draw the line?” Harstock asked. “Do you just give (revenue) to bigger schools or share it all throughout?”

Despite what the future holds, Nixon believes the EA Sports settlement and the O’Bannon case were huge steps for college athletes.

“You’ve got some former players who want to help stick up for the college kids and that’s why I think we’re starting to see this movement right now,” Nixon said.

Former athletes aren’t the only ones hoping the NCAA video games will make a comeback. According to an article by CBS Sports, EA’s Chief Competition Officer Peter Moore said he knows they will. It’s only a matter of when.

To understand more about the “pay to play” debate and past NCAA scandals, click here.

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