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Gamed: EA cancels its college football series, and the NCAA could pay the price

After years as BFFs, EA Sports and the NCAA have broken up. The love affair between the two companies that began in 1997 has come to a close, and that runs deeper than the loss of the “NCAA” name on EA’s college football games.

For years, EA Sports has been a defendant in a lawsuit, along with the NCAA and the Collegiate Licensing Company (CLC). The organizations have been the target of student athletes, current and former, over the use of the athletes’ images without their approval and without any compensation. This week though, EA and the CLC announced that they were settling all outstanding lawsuits, shelling out $40 million. Shortly after that announcement, EA also confirmed that after 20 years it would be ending its college football franchise.

You can’t blame EA for the decision to kill the franchise. The series sold well, but nowhere near the numbers that the almost-identical Madden does. The suit probably did manage to send several children of lawyers to college thanks to all the associated legal fees, but the problems of continuing the series outweighed the benefits. Plus it left EA’s name on a potentially high profile lawsuit.

The lawsuit is heading to the Supreme Court for what will be a major ruling, the type that will define legal precedent for years and that Fox News will somehow, bafflingly, find a way to blame on Obama. It’s kind of like when you have a friend that is a real prick. They keep dragging you into terrible situations because of their own issues, and then you end up being the one people yell at. There comes a point when you have to accept that your friend sucks, and you should just walk away. EA did that, and it brought the CLC with it, leaving the NCAA – the a-hole friend in this analogy – on its own. I bet EA and the CLC’s lawyers even high fived after deciding to settle all the lawsuits.

The decision removes EA and the CLC from the drama and headaches that the NCAA are ultimately responsible for. It’s also part of a bigger question about how the NCAA can monetize student athletes. When the lawsuit started by former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon does reach the Supreme Court, the case could end up having massive ramification to the way the NCAA does business. The NCAA, EA, and the CLC have been arguing that they are defended under the First Amendment. With the CLC and EA settling, the NCAA has lost two of its biggest partners in that defense.

The legal argument has been a long time coming. The NCAA has made money off of student athletes for decades without offering those athletes a penny. It even punishes anyone that tries to make cash outside of its control. It will soon have to argue that its policies are legitimate in front of the Supreme Court, and now it won’t have the deep pockets or resources of EA.

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