Updated 02/13/2011: Further Complications
According to the NCAA, colleges and the NCAA have the right to profit forever without consent (or sharing the proceeds) from the likeness of a college athlete. Several lawsuits have been filed featuring well-known basketball players like Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Oscar Robertson, and Tate George over a large number of revenue streams that the NCAA has including game footage, uniforms, and photos of former college players. None of the players, basketball or football, has ever received a dime for their likenesses .
I have already been a critic of the slavery involved in college sports  , and this is merely more evidence that the NCAA has been actively working to exploit their free labor source, not only during the four (or fewer) years the student-athletes are in school, but in perpetuity, for as much money as they can make selling commemorative dvds, Egg McMuffins at McDonalds, trading cards, Vitamin Water, or automobiles like Buick, Cadillac, and Chrysler. The players are (understandably) looking to get their fair share of the $4 billion market for these commemorative goods using their likeness, and the NCAA does not want to part with one cent of its share.
There are a lot of issues at stake here, including issues of the property rights of players to their own likenesses once they are no longer college students under the jurisdiction of the NCAA. Other issues include the attempts by colleges to expand into a great deal of peripheral markets in light of the lack of profitability of many sports, and their desire to profit as much from moneymaking sports like football and basketball as possible. What right do the athletes themselves have to these revenue streams, especially where there has been no licensing agreement and no assigning by players of their rights to their likeness? Given that professional athletes earn a substantial income from endorsements, what rights do athletes have to endorsement money from their collegiate work? The courts of the United States have a lot of questions to answer, and it looks like a Supreme Court case just might be made of it, one that could potentially drastically reshape the world of collegiate revenue streams and the rights of former athletes to the share of proceed from advertising and commemorative products made for their work while students.
Of course, this has implications for the amateur status of student athletes concerning their free labor, as well as what residual rights they own to their likeness after they leave. It looks like the lawyers and accountants are going to earn a field day off of this business before any students, present or past, get their share. Unfortunately, that is the way of the world, and the way of our justice system when would-be plantation owners are involved.
The lawsuits previously discussed have gotten more complicated as Hollywood Studios and video game manufacturers (like Electronic Arts) have joined the fray . What makes this particular struggle intriguing is that the NCAA and EA, which profit off of the portrayal of college athletes in video games, none of which profit goes to the athletes themselves whose realistically portrayed abilities are the salable feature of the game, are seeking to argue free speech and have a significant risk of losing the case if that defense is denied.
Hollywood motion picture studios fear, perhaps irrationally, that unauthorized biographies using images of athletes and the use of sports footage in movies will be limited or eliminated if the former athletes are able to profit. These fears seem a bit overblown. Nonetheless, the thought of sharing their gains with those former student-athletes whose likenesses they use is probably not a friendly one in an environment where they seek too to exploit easy sources of income that seem to be becoming rapidly less easy.