Taking a stand: Notre Dame won't be in EA Sports video game without player benefits

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

EA Sports announced earlier this month that it plans to bring back its once-popular college football video game franchise.

Notre Dame on Monday announced it plans to play hardball in support of its football players.

There’s a world where those two concepts can peacefully and mutual profitably co-exist, someday. It’s just that the NCAA’s chronic avoidance of defining the name/image/likeness (NIL) issue in college athletics has added layers of legalese and complications to a seismic shift in the amateur athletics model that was supposed to be implemented in time for the 2021-22 school year.

Now there’s no clear timeline.

And state legislatures, Congress and The Supreme Court will ultimately likely dictate to the NCAA rather than suggest what the next steps are that need to be taken.

EA Sports doesn’t have a firm timeline either to release its rebranded EA Sports College Football video game, though EA Sports vice president and general manager Daryl Holt told ESPN it wouldn’t happen in 2021.

What it does have is a plan.

If name/image/likeness is still unresolved when the game approaches its release date, EA Sports will introduce a watered-down version without the player rosters and likeness of actual players.

Modeling real college players and their traits without naming them was part of the appeal of NCAA Football 14, the last version to be released (in July of 2013) before EA Sports canceled the video game franchise after former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon won an antitrust class action lawsuit over NIL against the NCAA.

EA Sports, in partnering with collegiate trademark licensing company CLC, plans to proceed, though, with the new iteration by using logos, stadiums, uniforms and gameday traditions from more than 100 college teams.

But abruptly not Notre Dame. Call it a preemptive strike. 

“Notre Dame Athletics welcomes the return of EA Sports College Football, a video game series that has historically helped promote interest in college football,” Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said Monday in a statement.

“Notre Dame will not, however, participate in the game until such time as rules have been finalized governing the participation of our student-athletes. As those rules are developed, it is our strong desire that student-athletes be allowed to benefit directly from allowing their name, image and performance history to be used in the game.”

Irish head coach Brian Kelly tweeted his support on Monday.

"We are here to support our student-athletes," he said. "Much like we have empowered our players when it comes to providing a platform to speak on racial inequalities & social issues that are important to them, we must support them when it comes to NIL & the work that still needs to be done."

Notre Dame has long been a proponent of the NIL movement, and it’ll be interesting to see if other schools follow ND’s lead.

“It’s going on six years ago — at least five — that (university president) Father John (Jenkins) gave an interview with The New York Times,” Swarbrick said in December, “where he said we supported name, image and likeness for the student-athlete, based on the fundamental view that we wanted the experience of the student-athlete to be as much like the experience of the non-student-athlete at this university as possible.

“The implementation is a mess, and sadly so.”

It’s not as simple as NIL legislation finally taking form and being put into practice. EA Sports would then have to negotiate with the players for compensation, a process still yet to be defined under eventual NCAA guidelines.

And there’s so many more facets to the issue than video games.

College athletes will be able to sign endorsement deals, hire agents, sponsor camps and monetize their social media influence for instance.

“I think the big issue is that the NCAA has been historically reluctant to make change,” Sportico legal analyst and senior sports legal reporter Michael McCann said on ND Insider’s Pod of Gold podcast.

“We’ve seen that over the years. It’s a static organization. They like things the way they are — to their detriment, to be honest. I think this is a topic that was addressable 15 years ago. ...

“By not taking action, they’ve allowed the court system and politicians to come in and command the topic and take away the NCAA’s authority. The NCAA could lose a lot here and more than the fight over name, image and likeness.”

Notre Dame won’t be part of the EA Sports College Football video game until name, image and likeness issues are resolved.