Murphy: If NCAA players are in the game, should the game pay up?

bmurphy@idahostatesman.comJuly 23, 2013 

Brian Murphy

The issues at the core of the O’Bannon lawsuit against the NCAA are massive — and they’ll take years plus millions of dollars in lawyers’ fees and complex legal arguments to sort out.

But as the NCAA fights to keep its current business model in place, and against claims from former players who say they are owed billions for giving away their likenesses, current players have a sense that something is amiss.

Though many are conflicted — after all, they spent much of their lives working toward earning a college scholarship — they see the issue of player compensation crop up in small, personal ways.

Like a video game.

Last week, the NCAA opted to end its agreement with EA Sports, makers of the uber-popular NCAA Football video game series. If it’s in the game, it’s in the game.

And Charles Leno is in the game, despite the NCAA’s claim that it has never licensed the use or current student-athlete names, images or likenesses to EA.

“Players obviously see that we’re on that game. It has my height, my weight. It doesn’t have my hometown, but it has the state I’m from. That’s my stature right there,” the Boise State player said Monday at the Mountain West’s media days event. “I’m in the game, but I don’t get anything for it.”

Leno, who says financial hardships likely would have kept him from attending college if not for a scholarship and considers it a blessing he is able to play football, doesn’t want much. He doesn’t want to be paid like a professional, which he isn’t.

But he’s not blind, either.

He knows No. 78 on Boise State in the video game is based on him. Just as he knows all of the numbered jerseys worn to games weren’t picked at random.

“We know who that No. 11 was,” he said in reference to Kellen Moore.

For Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr, the brother of a former No. 1 NFL draft pick, it isn’t even a personal matter. Carr sees the way poorer teammates struggle to survive on the scholarship check, especially when many are sending some or all of it back home to help family members.

“That happens way more than you know,” said Carr, who was tabbed by media to defend his Mountain West Player of the Year honors. “I wish it wasn’t that way, but that’s the truth. Maybe just a little more for the guys. I’d like to see my teammates not have to struggle.”

The NCAA approved a cost-of-attendance stipend in October 2011, which would have allowed schools to provide up to $2,000 for student-athletes above the cost of tuition, room and board, books and fees.

But it was overturned by membership.

Boise State and President Bob Kustra publicly opposed the stipend, worrying about its competitive balance and budget implications.

The extra money could help Colorado State senior linebacker Shaquil Barrett, a married father of two young sons. Barrett works for a company that paints and waterproofs bridges during any school break to help support his family.

“My wife, she does a great job of budgeting. We know that our money is going to stretch,” Barrett said. “It probably would make your life a little less stressful when you know that everything is going to be covered and paid for.”

Change could be coming. The O’Bannon lawsuit could change the balance between schools and student-athletes. The five most powerful college football conferences are discussing a new alignment that would allow them to set their own rules, including presumably paying a stipend of some sort.

Colorado State offensive lineman Weston Richburg — who lined up at 12:01 a.m. on July 9 to purchase his copy of EA’s “NCAA Football 14” — has been keeping an eye on the simmering disputes. He is intrigued. And conflicted. He sees the arguments on both sides.

He doesn’t see it as a handout or giveaway to players. He sees any additional financial rewards as earnings by players whose job is to play college football — and who help bring in enormous revenues through television deals and ticket sales.

“It’s not crazy to think that college athletes could be paid for what they do in the future,” Richburg said.

It’s not crazy. And it’s getting less crazy every day.

It might be years down the road — and too late to help Carr’s teammates or Barrett’s tight summer budget — but if the NCAA loses badly, Charles Leno may eventually see a few dollars for his role in a video game.

Brian Murphy: 377-6444; Twitter: @murphsturph

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