Thursday afternoon, EA Sports announced they had removed thirteen female players from the Canadian, Mexican, and Spanish national teams ahead of the digital launch of FIFA 16. The move, which EA publicly disagreed with, comes at the request of NCAA, the overseeing organization of college athletics.
The removed players are enrolled in collegiate programs throughout the United States (earning the classification of "student-athletes") in addition to their International play featured during this past summer's Women's World Cup. NCAA sets strict rules about how a student-athlete controls their marketing image (hint: they don't) and disallows these athletes from receiving any compensation as a result of sponsorships and appearances (virtual and real). The organization contends that the players' inclusion in FIFA 16 would be a violation of those rules, risking their NCAA eligibility, scholarships, and enrollment in athletic programs.
This contentious issue of college players' rights has often been raised in recent years, including a recent 20-minute takedown by Last Week Tonight's John Oliver. Back in 2013, it was brought front and center to the public consciousness when Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel was accused of accepting payment in exchange for his autograph (he was ultimately cleared but suspended for "other violations").
In the realm of soccer, Stanford forward Jordan Morris was thrust into the spotlight last year when he was surprisingly added to USMNT rosters ahead of late-year friendlies. For International friendlies, players earn several thousands of dollars per match, depending on the result (a loss is $5,000 but a win against a FIFA Top 10 team is $14,000). There were questions about what might happen to Morris' eligibility should he accept the payouts but, ultimately, an agreement between USSF and NCAA allowed for him to receive only per diem payments (coverage for lodging, food, etc.), forfeiting any other compensation earned.
Why does NCAA feel the need to control an athlete's earnings? Paradoxically, they insist upon doing so in order to protect the athletes from "commercial exploitation". The distinction to NCAA is monetary - getting paid makes you a professional so you should play for free and remain an amateur (and thus, a student-athlete).
It creates an odd situation like the US-Mexico friendly earlier this year in San Antonio. Morris started that match and scored the game-winner though he did not receive his $14,000 payout. In NCAA's eyes, he was an "amateur". His teammates? Professionals.
This official stance by NCAA runs counter to the multi-million dollar salaries of executives, often state-employed head coaches, and athletic directors. Further, for an organization that tallies an annual revenue of close to $1,000,000,000 (over 80% of which is from television and marketing rights fees) on the backs of those student-athletes, it begs for NCAA's exact definition of "commercial exploitation" and how it differs from the status quo.
To their credit, EA's press release on the female players' removal was clear on the process underwent to attain and use likenesses without offering compensation to the players. EA feels they followed the procedure correctly and are free to use the images without risking players' NCAA eligibility.
But this dispute also comes at a time when NCAA is embroiled in a fierce legal battle over usage rights (among other things) that have derailed EA's massively popular NCAA Football series. That game, which was shelved in 2013 over licensing issues, brought $80 million in revenue for EA's accounts by using "similar likenesses" of players and randomized names. However, other player details (weight, height, hometowns, etc.) aligned with their real life counterparts. Until that legal dispute is settled, EA appears to be taking the cautious route and saving themselves a headache with NCAA's archaic rules.
Hidden under this news is a wrinkle that revolves, yet again, around Jordan Morris. Earlier this year, Morris was included in a roster update to FIFA 15, listed as a Free Agent. His likeness wasn't used (as is standard for most players outside of major leagues), but his name and other identifying details were.
Then, about two months later, he vanished without mention. Morris' removal comes just weeks after the announcement of playable women's teams, which may have piqued NCAA's interest. Surely, the organization is aware of college athletes performing in a World Cup event and their inclusion in a globally loved video game would send them scrambling. Morris possibly could have slipped under the radar if not for that, but removing the thirteen women would likely result in a quick check of any other existing student-athletes, ensnaring the Stanford forward.
This move to seize ultimate control over the use of student-athletes is not a pretty look for NCAA, who have come under increasing public pressure to change their policies in recent years. The most likely basis for their regulation of women's players is probably to avoid further troubles amid a heated, prolonged court case - a reasonable and protective measure. Still, the over-zealousness of the organization as a whole causes one to wonder just how much longer the NCAA can exert control over nearly 500,000 "amateurs".