EA Sports and the Johnny Manziel Precedent

Yesterday, EA Sports and the Collegiate Licensing Company (CLC) announced a settlement agreement with current and former student-athletes in the ongoing litigation involving the use of their image and likeness in video games.  The settlement terms were not disclosed, but presumably within the coming months both former and current student-athletes will be receiving a check.  A big question that must be asked is, how, if at all, would accepting those checks impact current student-athletes’ eligibility?  After all, the NCAA was not a party to the settlement, and its rules clearly state that current student-athletes cannot profit from their image or likeness.  Wouldn’t accepting the settlement check be doing just that?

Where else do we turn for the answer to this question but our good friend Johnny Manziel?  Remember back in February there were issues with 3rd party companies infringing on his trademarked phrase “Johnny Football,” in printing t-shirts and selling them for profit.  Mr. Manziel’s legal team issued cease and desist letters and filed lawsuits against these companies, in an effort to protect his intellectual property.  There was no question at the time that Mr. Manziel could not make money off the phrase “Johnny Football” without jeopardizing his eligibility.  However, what if he were to win a monetary settlement or lawsuit as a result of keeping others from profiting off his name?  We learned this from Darren Rovell’s story:

Texas A&M’s compliance office recently received a ruling from the NCAA that a student-athlete can keep financial earnings as a result of a legal action.

It doesn’t get any clearer than that.  However as I talked about in this interview (beginning at the 12:00 mark), the ruling led to some interesting hypotheticals.  What do you do about the enterprising booster who purposefully infringes on a student-athletes name or image and then settles the lawsuit for big money, as a way to “legally” funnel that student-athlete money.  The NCAA took notice of the potential loophole, and quickly clarified that the booster and student-athlete could not orchestrate the plan in my hypothetical above.

Now we get a real-world test of this NCAA interpretation on a grand scale.  Assuming the Johnny Football precedent holds, current student-athletes would be able to accept EA Sports and CLC’s settlement checks without forfeiting their eligibility.  For the NCAA to rule otherwise, it would have to go back on what it told Texas A&M and Mr. Manziel, and/or find some clever way of rationalizing how the interpretation was limited to that specific situation.  Of course, just ask Penn State if the NCAA is capable of taking some type of one-time action in a unique circumstance.

Johnny Manziel has set the precedent, but will it hold?  There is going to be lot to discuss with the EA Sports settlement, but the issue of current student-athletes accepting the settlement checks is one to keep a watchful eye on.

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