For many sports fans, a number is as identifiable as a name. Growing up far away from a professional team, those numbers didn’t really imprint on me until I covered football for four years at college. Ever since, I remember uniform numerals not with a name, but as a name.
No. 85? Carl Reeves, one of our greatest defensive ends ever at N.C. State. Nineteen is Eddie Goines, the split end who set all the records that Torry Holt later broke. No. 7 was Hassan Shamsid-Deen, a redshirted freshman I remember only because he wore No. 7 and his name was Hassan Shamsid-Deen.
College Football USA ’96, by EA Sports, didn’t feature roster editing or sharing, but it didn’t need that for me to know who was on the field for State. In my first year out of college I still recognized everyone, cycling through the substitution menu. No. 39, Carlos King, at fullback. No. 48, Morocco Brown, linebacker. No. 59, John Rissler, defensive line.
Remember, this was in 1995, on a 16-bit console. The only physically distinguishing trait of players in that year, as they appeared on the screen, was the color of their skin, for the few pixels in which that was exposed. In the menus, you could see their ratings, height and weight and that, combined with a position and that number, was enough. I showed the game to my roommate at the time, a recent graduate who also covered the team for three years.
“Oh man, they got Hassan Shamsid-Deen in this thing?” Ted said.
So I had to laugh when, in response to Ed O’Bannon’s notorious lawsuit against the NCAA, Electronic Arts this week filed an “expert study” saying that fewer than 25 percent of football and men’s basketball players are identifiable in video games they have published. That’s bullshit, and it has been from day one.
Electronic Arts’ own communications with the College Licensing Company admit that the games are coded and balanced with real-life rosters, and real life players on them. The “study” is not scientific, it is testimony in a civil action, which is to say it is necessarily self-serving. It was entered into the record to limit the size of the potential class action against EA and the NCAA, and/or the scope of the damages—or settlement—the publisher would pay if the players prevail. O’Bannon, former Nebraska quarterback Sam Keller and others are suing the NCAA and EA Sports for the unauthorized use of their likenesses—on sports apparel, in memorabilia and in video games—while they were in college or after they left.
In June, a federal judge will rule if the case can be a class action. If it is, the exposure to the NCAA and EA Sports will run well into the millions. It could reach billions. It could force the NCAA to pay players. The destruction to the NCAA’s business model could be so comprehensive that the end of NCAA Football, my favorite video game, is among