I’m on the phone with Denard Robinson, and I need to make an admission. I called him because of the news this week –– the kind of news that saves a very slow week when you have to turn in a column on Sunday night –– that EA Sports would be reviving its widely-beloved NCAA Football video game franchise. It won’t be this year, and it’ll be called EA Sports College Football instead of NCAA Football, but its release will mark the first new college football game EA has made since 2013, when Robinson occupied the cover.
I want to ask him about the dichotomy of being on the cover of a video game because of what he did as an unpaid college athlete. About what it’s like to be famous and unable to capitalize on your earnings potential and whether he thinks this news underscores the problem at hand.
But first I need to tell him: I’ve never played NCAA Football.
“Oh my gosh. Jesus,” he says. “What? Why not? So you never played NCAA, that’s what you’re telling me?”
“This is bad. This is really bad. Who gave you the — come on, man. You gotta pick this game up. Do I gotta send this game to you and make you play it?”
Robinson, before he came to Michigan and played himself onto the cover, grew up the same way lots of people his age did: playing the game. He and his brothers would create players and try to win the Heisman Trophy, going through a four-year career then doing it again and again and again.
He sounds the same way most people do when they talk about this game. It’s the sort of deep-rooted nostalgia that a new edition has a way of killing. When he got to be in the game, let alone on the cover, he thought it was the coolest thing in the world.
“Just to be one of the players on that — and it don’t even have my name, it just said 16 from Deerfield Beach, Florida,” Robinson said. “That just meant so much for my city, for me to represent my city. It felt unreal, you know.”
But the first part is the important part. It didn’t have his name because college athletes aren’t allowed to license their image for money. Instead, it had a nameless Michigan quarterback from Deerfield Beach, Fla., with dreadlocks who wore #16 and ran the ball really well.
When former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon sued the NCAA over his likeness being used without compensation in the same way, part of the effect was EA discontinuing the games. In the fine print of the announcement this week was a note that no player likenesses will be used in the new video game.
But by 2023, when the game is expected to launch, that decision might have nothing to do with O’Bannon v. NCAA. Twenty states have either passed or considered laws allowing student-athletes to capitalize on their image rights. Bills have been introduced at the federal level as well, with bipartisan support, and the NCAA has started to lobby Congress not to vote the bills down, but only so it can have some level of control over what happens. In this respect, Democratic majorities in the U.S. House and Senate will likely make a bill more favorable to athletes if passed.
Even if a federal bill isn’t passed, though, Florida’s bill goes into effect in July of this year. In the state of Michigan, a law passed in December and goes into effect in … 2023.
“College guys gonna need a union,” Robinson said. “And I say that because they’re gonna need someone to represent them. Cause somebody gotta be in that room to represent them. If it’s just NCAA people representing them, well then they’re gonna look out for the best for themselves. So I think somebody’s gonna have to be in that room to represent them and come up with some solutions.”
For a brief moment this August, it seemed like there was momentum towards a union — or something resembling one — forming. A group of players including Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Michigan’s Hunter Reynolds went on social media and tweeted a proposal, asking to play the season with universally mandated safety protocols, the ability to opt out, retain eligibility and create a College Football Players’ Association. Then-President Donald Trump seemed to endorse it.
Two of those demands — a season and eligibility retention — were met. A third, universal safety protocols, didn’t quite happen, but each conference had its own set of protocols. That last one? You don’t hear much about that last one anymore.
I tell Robinson my pet theory: That a majority of players would never choose to sit out games in the name of forming a union, thus the effort will always fizzle out. “I think that’s the truth,” he said. At Michigan, he and his teammates noticed people getting in trouble for selling shoes, shirts, tickets or anything else. “Of course we had that conversation,” he said, “but we never came up with a solution.”
Robinson thinks athletes “need” to get paid, but he isn’t closer to finding that solution than anyone else. A union and health insurance would be a good place to start, though. Thanks to a stint in the NFL, Robinson has insurance now. At Michigan, though, when his earnings potential was at its peak, he was always a bad injury away from all those dollars evaporating. So his brother paid for insurance.
“I’m thinking I’m gonna get drafted,” Robinson said. “But if I get injured in my last year, I won’t be able to see any of the money that I thought I shoulda seen when I was in college.”
He brings up the case of Marcus Lattimore, a running back at South Carolina the same time Robinson was at Michigan. In his freshman year, Lattimore ran for 1,197 yards, but he had severe knee injuries his sophomore and junior years. He got drafted by the San Francisco 49ers, but never played an NFL game. “He was one of the best backs in South Carolina history,” Robinson said. “… He played three years, four years in college and never got to see his real earnings because of (injuries).”
Robinson, of course, has his own story. Because he had graduated before being on the cover — EA approached him about it right after the last game of his senior year — he could be paid for that. But the man who might have been the most marketable Michigan football player this side of Charles Woodson left Ann Arbor with that being the lone endorsement to his name.
“This is true,” he said.
So does it bother him?
“No, no,” he said. “… I think everything happens for a reason in life.”
Sears can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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