Tomorrow is one of the most important soccer days in the year, not for any game in the calendar, but for the release of EA Sports FIFA16 video game. While it is just a virtual game, the importance of it to many kids (and yes, adults too) is in its ability to draw fans deeper into the real game. Many discussions between the boys at my son’s soccer practices have revolved around getting the game, who they want to play as, and which version or console they have. These boys already have a strong interest in the sport, but through playing the game it creates an attachment to teams and players that they may not have developed otherwise (why does a Canadian 10 year old regularly check on the results of Exeter City [English League 2] for any other reason than he spent most of a virtual season as their leading scorer?).
Each annual iteration of the game consists of some minor tweaks to game play and controls, but the most important change (and the reason people keep buying it) is the updates of team rosters to stay current with the latest changes in the transfer market and inclusion (and subtraction) of the stars of the game. For the first time the game will include a group of playable women’s teams – not the club teams, but the national teams of many of the participants in last summer’s Women’s World Cup. When EA first announced the women’s teams that were to be included in the game, one entry – Canada – stood out; Canada would be the only country in the game where the women’s national team would be playable, but the men’s national team would not. Sigh. Granted our women are consistently ranked around 10th in the world, while our men have spent most of the last few years ranked around 100th. So somewhat belatedly, EA Sports – based in Vancouver and therefore largely a Canadian game – announced that the Canadian men’s team would be playable in FIFA16. This is great for men’s and women’s soccer in Canada, being able to win the World Cup as Canada in this game (yeah I know there are already jokes about how you’d probably have to turn the difficulty way down) gives the future players of this country a chance to dream, but it also gives them a chance to learn who currently plays for Canada. While Christine Sinclair is already familiar to many Canadians, now kids can follow the development of Cyle Larin, Ashley Lawrence, Kadeisha Buchanan, Tesho Akindele, and Jessie Fleming. If there is one thing the national teams need, it is to become that team that you want to be a part of as a fan or as a player. The women have that – just consider how they were treated throughout the WWC that Canada hosted this year, but the men have still struggled to find a strong following. The men’s team has the acute problem right now of not just needing to fill the stadium during its current World Cup qualification cycle, but needs to do so without its games having any current broadcasting deal. Despite the ratings that the women’s team brought in over the summer, the CSA and Sportsnet terminated their broadcasting deal just before Canada began its road to (hopefully?) the 2018 World Cup. FIFA16 with its ability to play as Canada helps can help to build that supporters base not just this year, but far into the future.
But not all has worked according to plan since the announcement that the Canadian Women’s team would be included in FIFA16. Last week EA was forced to announce that 13 players that were to be included were being dropped from the rosters of their national teams because they are currently players in the NCAA and their inclusion in the video game would affect their scholarships and eligibility to play on their US college teams. This affected 1 Spaniard, 6 Mexicans, and 6 Canadians – including Lawrence, Fleming, and Buchanan. Now EA made it clear that the players involved were not being paid in any way for their participation in the game (and with the thousands of men’s players the game includes there is no way they could compensate players and still make a game), yet the NCAA has held firm and insisted these women not be included in the game. What makes this so odd is that the women listed were not going to be included in the game as NCAA players – those teams aren’t part of the game anyway – the women were solely being listed as part of their national teams.
Don’t think for a moment that this is in any way about protecting the amateur eligibility of 13 women, this is entirely about the several thousand men that participate in NCAA college football and basketball. Or more precisely, protecting the NCAA and its billion dollar sports industry from having to compensate the thousands of football players and basketball players in their system. College sports is extremely lucrative, look at the success of March Madness or the BCS for how much college sports brings in through TV and advertising revenue. Yet its players receive no pay for their play. Well, okay they get scholarships and a college education for their efforts, but the NCAA as it currently functions, brings in billions in revenue for rather minuscule labour costs. It is such a successful system because for both football and basketball it is largely the only route to a professional career in the sport later on. Student-athletes (as the NCAA calls them) are trapped working on their athletic skills (and yes academic skills, but there is also a lot of controversy about that) for very little actual pay, in careers that already have limited timespans, in the hopes of becoming a pro after school. Yet players are not considered employees or workers by the NCAA. In
fact the players of Northwestern University recently lost a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decision where they attempted to claim they were workers and therefore entitled to unionize. Now belonging to a union isn’t simply about pay, it is about many other protections from abuses of employers, and the ability to work as a group of employees to make working conditions better, but consider the discrepancy between how the players and the coach of these amateur players is compensated. Players receive a generous scholarship – as long as they are athletes at the school, but this is not actual pay. Pat Fitzgerald, NWU football coach, receives a $2.48 million pay package and only ranks 39th on the list of highest paid football coaches in the NCAA. Look across the NCAA and you will find that the highest paid state employees in most of the US are football and basketball coaches – yet players are not entitled to a fraction of the revenues that they generate for their schools. That is what drives the need to prevent 13 women from being able to virtually participate for their national teams in a video game – the need to prevent football and basketball players from similar participation – or compensation.
The need to protect the NCAA from its players has affected the possibilities for another Canadian as well. Sprinter Andre De Grasse won two bronze medals at the recent IAAF World Track & Field Championships in Beijing, yet was forced to forfeit his prize earnings from the meet as it would have prevented him from keeping his eligibility status in NCAA. Again, this has little to do with De Grasse receiving his rewards as one of the world’s fastest men, and everything to do with the idea that one of the more lucrative sports might find a way to pay their athletes. And this isn’t about some ideal of amateurism in sport – fans don’t care one way or the other if athletes are paid for their efforts, consider the eyes fixed on any major sporting event such as the Super Bowl, Olympics, Champions League, World Cup, etc. – amateur or pro, people watch.
It is a shame that one big step for the representation of Canadians and of women in a video game has been derailed by the greed of an organization “protecting” their amateur athletes.