Things have been tense for college athletics lately (well, tenser than usual, anyways)- the FBI has been squeezing the details out slowly on an investigation they did into corruption of various men’s basketball teams, choosing to release expense sheets for what appears to be players “loaned” money by agents for recruitment. In the same vain to that particular investigation, sports news behemoth ESPN fired a report that Arizona head coach Sean Miller was involved in a wire-tapping investigation concerning a player being paid $100,000 to sign with his team, only to later be proven inaccurate (this piece by The Ringer’s Mark Titus sums up the situation well). The controversy of players being illegally paid and recruited has been a story for as long as college athletes have been given Monopoly money to come play sports for gargantuan markets that generate billions of dollars for literally everyone else besides the players on the court/field.
The tug of war has always come down to the fear of the overall product of college sports taking a hit from having top prospective players going straight from high school to professional levels (see: NBA [basketball], NFL [football], as the MLB [baseball] allows for high school graduates to go pro) instead of being required to play one year at a university or overseas versus the argument that talents shouldn’t have to starve and not be able to even hold a job while attending universities on scholarships just because the NCAA has a deal with the professional sports. A dirtier secret can be found in that if a player declares for being drafted professionally (in men’s hoops anyways) and doesn’t get picked up by a team, or they burn out of whatever pipeline developmental system is in place (the NFL doesn’t have such a program, but for the NBA they call this the “G-League”) they cannot go back to school and play basketball on a scholarship. Would be prospects who commit their lives and aspirations towards playing professionally have to fall back on getting education they usually can’t afford, and, in some cases, might not be prepared for. This is especially true for the high school academies that cut corners and give low-tier education so that their students can focus strictly on playing sports that are given all of the funding. Recently, championship winning NBA head coach Steve Kerr spoke up about how players should be allowed to go back to school if they don’t reach the lofty goal of going pro.
Naturally, such royalties would be argued for players to be paid for based off of merchandise and other goods. Say I was a player for The Ohio State University- my last name would be on my jersey and I would be proud of it too. I’d play my heart out day in and day out whilst struggling to make ends meet between practices, games, classes, and taking care of family. Thousands of fans would pay $150 for a jersey that has my name on the back of it. I’d see everyone in the stands with “Smith” on their backs, counting the heads. Forty, fifty, sixty etc. people all wearing $150 jerseys. Where does the money for my name go? According to the NCAA, it is the scholarship I have. It’s paid for by the classes I can’t get to in time and have to pull all-nighters to finish after getting home at 3-4 AM.
Such a problem is amplified with video games licensed by the NCAA. Names, likeliness, even player’s pictures were used to promote and sell games made by both EA and 2K Sports. With well documented battles against these games being made, men’s basketball was stopped in 2009 and football was stopped in 2013, both by EA (it might be worth noting 2K Sports was done with this endeavor in 2007).
These developments recently bring a grim reminder that we may never see a resolution to this issue. So how do we solve this? The way I see it, there are only a few realistic options: we either see benefits given to programs (namely direct funding to students) as a result of the sales of these games, the NCAA ends their “One and Done” rule and as a trade-off get the rights to market the license in games, or, most realistically, the teams are represented with purely fictitious names and character models used.
The hardest of those, giving benefits to the players, is a slippery slope. If games were the only thing to keep track of, then this theory would work well. Unfortunately, there is so much more to juggle in for the benefits talk- tickets, merchandise, clothing for the players, even scholarships could start to be affected. I see this making the lines for what is acceptable to be given to the players to be blurrier than ever, too. How do we know that the correct amount of money would be going to the player? An agent could easily slip $100,000 into the bank and it could be hidden as revenue for the games. To put into another perspective, the NCAA is about as cooperative as any political party is with their opposition. Such change is unlikely to happen any time soon.
The middle of the road approach would be to adjust the college “One and Done” rule, which is to say athletes can go pro right from high school. The trade off? Absolutely no whining about players not getting paid. They’ll take their plastic gold coins that are only good at local Chuck E Cheese that is college scholarships and be prepared to face consequences for breaking this rule. I think it is easier to appeal to the system this way because they players who would be going out to college to play basketball still need to prove themselves, and this is simply the price of admission.
Finally, there is the easiest way to get the college video games back out there: generalize the player pool. Adam Smith from the University of Virginia instead of some five star recruit. This has actually been done in years since the cutoff of college sports. Every year, the NBA 2K series has their rookie draft classes auto-generated. For example, if we used the 2018 new players as an example, our fake Adam Smith might be the top rated prospect, even if he doesn’t exist elsewhere. Such a feature was there long before the divorce of the NCAA and video games for both 2K Games and EA Sports.
What really speaks to how this could work can be found in a short feature 2K Sports snuck into their game last year. In the “story mode”, the player goes to college for a year and plays about five marquee games in their collegiate career. They aren’t playing with big names on their team, they aren’t even playing with real people. It is bizarre that there is so much attention put into making high school showcase scenarios and a few college games and yet we’re led to believe this can’t be replicated on an independent product. If the names are generic, then it is up to the NCAA and the universities to decide if they want to make more money (of course they want more money) and the game studios to make the games themselves (why wouldn’t they want to reskin a game they already are making yearly anyways?).
I’ll outright say it: I’d pay full price for an annual 2K NCAA College Hoops game for updated coaches and graphics. I still play College Hoops 2K8 on the PS3 religiously. There is an appeal to starting from scratch with an awful program like Sienna or Rutgers and working them up for four to five years to become the sharks in the waters of tournaments. The basketball season is so much shorter in college, so it is much more do-able to play a full four year career in a single year’s release as compared to the pro games that have 82 game seasons.
Maybe it can be argued that college games wouldn’t sell as well as the professional ones would, but it is too good of an opportunity to let sit on the shelf, collecting dust.