A worker walks past cases for various Electronic Arts Inc. video games at the company's headquarters in Redwood City, California, U.S. Photographer: Tony Avelar/Bloomberg
A worker walks past cases for various Electronic Arts Inc. video games at the company's headquarters in Redwood City, California, U.S. Photographer: Tony Avelar/Bloomberg

The National Collegiate Athletic Association isn’t renewing its licensing contract with Electronic Arts for a college football video game. This may not exactly strike you as big news, and in a sense it’s not: The NCAA deal was worth all of $545,000 a year. (By way of perspective, EA does close to $4 billion in annual revenues.)

But it says a lot about the perverse mindset of the NCAA, and the forces of change that are finally bearing down on the ethically bankrupt world of college sports.

Why did the NCAA cancel the contract? The association blamed “the current business climate and costs of litigation.” What they’re referring to, specifically, is the Ed O’Bannon case, an antitrust lawsuit filed in 2009 by the former UCLA All-America basketball player and a handful of other ex-college athletes who don’t think the NCAA should be profiting from their images without sharing the royalties.

My hunch is that the NCAA wasn’t just hoping to (belatedly) limit its legal exposure. It was also hoping to drum up some public sympathy for its cause. The association probably assumed that EA's game-makers would respond to losing the licensing deal by making its product more generic, that they would stop modeling players after real-life counterparts and that video-game users would, in turn, blame O’Bannon. (There’s already no shortage of anti-O’Bannon venom from video gamers on Twitter.)

In other words, the NCAA assumed that a for-profit, publicly traded company would opt to make a product less desirable.

Surprise! EA instead announced that its college football game would continue to feature college teams and conferences. It’s simply going to enter into new agreements with those teams and conferences that bypass the NCAA.

The question now is how far EA will go. Will they continue the farce of disguising players just enough to claim deniability (however implausible), or will they choose to make their product more realistic, and thus more popular?

Of course, for EA to go the latter route, schools will have to allow them to use the likenesses of players, which will make the absurdity of not compensating those players that much more apparent. Is it too much to hope that schools will come to their senses and realize it’s time to stop exploiting athletes?

Probably. But if things break the right way in the O’Bannon case, that realization may be forced on them by a federal judge.

(Jonathan Mahler is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)