Should student athletes profit from video game sales?

The NCAA licenses student-athlete's images to video game makers.

Basketball star Ed O’Bannon and quarterback Sam Keller each earned most valuable player awards during their collegiate careers. Now, years after playing their final games, they are pursuing what they consider a more significant collegiate legacy: They are attempting through federal lawsuits to force the NCAA to share its annual revenues with student athletes—including money earned through the sale of video games bearing the athletes’ likenesses.

“There are millions and millions of dollars being made off the sweat and grind of the student athlete,” O’Bannon said. “Student athletes see none of that other than their education.”

O’Bannon’s lawsuit seeks a share of the money the NCAA earns from licensing former players’ images in commercials, DVDs, and through video game sales. Keller’s claims are narrower and focused on the NCAA’s deal with Electronic Arts Inc., which makes basketball and football video games based on college players’ images.

They are making headway in court, racking up preliminary victories that have advanced their cause further than previous legal challenges to the NCAA.

The debate over compensating student athletes is almost as old as the NCAA, founded in 1906. Amateurs have long-been expected to compete for free and the love of sport—or at least the cost of a scholarship.

But the NCAA’s revenues have skyrocketed in recent years—it recently signed a $10.8 billion, 14-year television deal for basketball—and so have the demands of athletes to share in the money.

For its part, the NCAA is steadfast in its position that student athletes are prohibited from receiving payment for participating in sports. It also says it has done nothing wrong in marketing itself for the benefit of its member schools and will continue to vigorously contest the lawsuits.

A judge earlier this year refused the NCAA’s request to toss out the eight lawsuits filed across the country by former student athletes. They are now consolidated into a single federal action in San Francisco.

The former student athletes accuse the NCAA of antitrust violations, alleging they are prevented from marketing their images because the NCAA locked up their commercial rights forever during their college days.