NCAA College Football video game screenshot
A screenshot from NCAA College Football 14 (Image: Electronic Arts)

When it comes to America’s two shadiest organizations, in my mind it’s academic as to which entity heads the top spot in the power rankings. Many would vote for Goldman Sachs, the megabank whose pathological fixation on profits stretches deep into the American economy and federal government. While a Goldman nod is completely defensible, I tend to go with the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

The NCAA has, for years, exploited its “student-athletes” in a way that would make an Indonesian sweatshop owner blush. College football has made the organization millions upon millions of dollars over the years, on the backs of kids who are unpaid — and required to be at least three years removed from high school before cashing in with the NFL. God forbid any of them spend a few hours signing autographs or have their coaches buy them tacos, thus violating their amateur status. That’s when the suspensions and fines come raining down in one of the most laughably perverse parodies of “enforcing the rules” imaginable.

They wouldn’t have gotten away with it for so long and with such impunity, though, if we the fans and alumni weren’t embarrassingly complicit. Every time we shell out money for tickets, apparel or video games—money these adults we’re paying to see perform will never see themselves—we’re perpetuating the collegiate athletics cash machine.

But when I learned a few weeks ago that video-game maker Electronic Arts would be discontinuing their annual NCAA College Football series because of belated legal entanglements, I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t react to the news with unreserved satisfaction.

No one foresaw that EA would pull the plug on its 20-year franchise instead of sharing profits with players.

From strictly a standpoint of personal taste, I’ve long preferred the NCAA variant of video-game football to Madden. I’ve often found that the latter’s inexorable march toward superrealism often comes at the expense of actual fun. (Do I really need to gain experience with intra-squad practices and negotiate contracts during the season?). But every year I pick up NCAA, and at this point I’ve played more seasons of college football than I count. There’s something about recruiting and angling for the Heisman, running up the score on the SEC powers, and unabashedly running the option that just sucks me in. Even when I lost a recruiting battle with Penn State for uber-prospect Drew Toal IV, and he later torched my team for some 400 yards in the air, it didn’t sour me on the game at all. It just made me more determined to capture the strong right arm of Drew Toal V.

NCAA College Football video game screenshot
A screenshot from NCAA College Football 14 (Image: Electronic Arts)

Unlike Madden, NCAA doesn’t use players’ names, not exactly. They do, however, base many of the game’s players on the prospective opening-day rosters of these teams. So a few years ago, for instance, if you had played as the Florida Gators, your randomly named quarterback—the left-handed one with a strange halo around his head—wouldn’t be named Tim Tebow, but he would make for a striking facsimile. But if you play more than four seasons (which I do every year), there is no trace left of Tebow or RG III or Denard Robinson or any other real-life college star on any roster. The slate has been wiped clean.

It’s long been an open secret that this arrangement between the NCAA and EA was borderline criminal, but from a legal standpoint college athletes are something less than full citizens, and it was only recently that they collectively stood up for their rights in court. What nobody saw coming (including the plaintiffs, apparently) was that EA would suddenly pull the plug on its 20-year-old franchise, rather than remove the offending player avatars or enter into a profit-sharing agreement with the players.

Ed O'Bannon
Former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon filed suit against EA and the NCAA. (Image: AP)

I know I’m not the only one who didn’t see this coming, and although I’m happy whenever the NCAA gets a black eye, this whole thing leaves me a bit adrift in my sports-video-gaming life. It’s only about a month until Microsoft and Sony release their next-generation consoles, and, as of now anyway, there will be no supercharged college-football game on the horizon. Although not having the real players would almost certainly detract from my enjoyment of Madden, not having them represented in NCAA wouldn’t affect my reaction to the game in the least. So long as I can continue producing a long and storied line of five-star recruits—with my name and about 70 extra pounds of muscle—who run a 4.3 40, I’m happy. Despite the bittersweet news, I remain hopeful that we haven’t seen the last of NCAA Football, that college athletes will one day get their due, and that Drew Toal V isn’t the last of his line.