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Bill Russell Sues NCAA, Electronic Arts Over Using His Image

By Cynthia Hsu, Esq. on October 13, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Ex-Celtics star Bill Russell has sued the NCAA and video game maker Electronic Arts. Russell alleges that the EA/NCAA's sports video games are using his likeness without his consent.

Russell alleges that the NCAA violated antitrust laws. The association uses former players' likeness and images to make profits from licensing deals in video games. The NCAA also sells clips and videos of games.

The ex-University of San Francisco star joins other NCAA alums in suing the organization. Ed O'Bannon, who used to play for UCLA, has filed a similar suit on behalf of other former players earlier this year.

Why all the fuss?

It's because players generally don't receive any compensation when the NCAA profits off their image. But the NCAA maintains that they've done nothing wrong, since they own the rights for the games cited in Russell's complaint. Who's right here?

The NCAA could end up losing millions of dollars in licensing if they lose this case.

However, the law might not be on their side. Though they own the rights to the broadcasted games, that doesn't necessarily mean they own the "likeness" of former players and can use them at whim for profit.

This is because in most cases, celebrities and sports stars have a right to use their name and likeness. Organizations that use someone's likeness without their consent might have violated the law. However, this right isn't absolute.

Sometimes a person's right to use their own likeness has to be balanced by the right to free speech. In fact, earlier this year a judge tossed a lawsuit against Electronic Arts brought by a former NCAA quarterback and cited the First Amendment. That case was different, however: EA didn't use the quarterback's real name in the game.

Bill Russell may have sued the NCAA, but will his lawsuit meet the same fate as the former NCAA quarterback's suit? That much is unclear, but it could jeopardize many of the NCAA's sports video games.

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