Ex-Celtics Star Bill Russell Sues NCAA, Electronic Arts Over Image Use

William “Bill” Russell, former star center for the National Basketball Association’s Boston Celtics, accused the National Collegiate Athletic Association of using his likeness from his college playing days without paying him or seeking his consent.

The complaint is the latest to claim the NCAA violates federal antitrust laws by keeping former student basketball and football athletes from receiving compensation for the commercial use of their images and likenesses. The association has denied wrongdoing in those cases.

Electronic Arts Inc., the second-largest U.S. video-game maker, is also named as a defendant in the lawsuit, filed yesterday in federal court in Oakland, California. Russell accuses it of using his image in a “Tournament of Legends” feature on an NCAA basketball video game.

Russell, who led the University of San Francisco to NCAA championships in 1955 and 1956, said in the complaint that the association sells $150 videos of the team’s championship games. At least 54 clips featuring him are available through the website of the NCAA’s for-profit business partner and photos of him through an NCAA online store, according to the complaint.

Russell, 77, is seeking a court order blocking further sale of the videos and video games, plus disgorgement of profits from them and unspecified damages.

Post-College Endorsements

The NCAA owns and licenses the copyright on the NCAA games cited in the complaint, said Donald Remy, the association’s general counsel. The NCAA doesn’t restrict athletes from profiting from their college accomplishments through post- college commercial endorsements and other ventures, he said in an e-mail today.

“Mr. Russell, like the thousands of other student-athletes who played the game, can capitalize on his likeness, reputation, athletic and academic successes as a student-athlete after college,” the e-mail said.

Russell’s complaint and similar lawsuits “would cause the NCAA to lock up its archive of championship contests, and they would be held hostage unless every student-athlete, coach, band member, cheerleader and fan in a photo or camera shot received compensation,” Remy said. “That is not how the law works nor should it be.”

Jeff Brown, an Electronic Arts spokesman, didn’t respond to a voice mail seeking comment on the lawsuit.

Ed O’Bannon

Russell’s claims will probably be consolidated with a pending lawsuit brought by former University of California, Los Angeles, basketball star Ed O’Bannon on behalf of other former NCAA players against the association and Redwood City, California-based Electronic Arts, according to the complaint.

“Bill Russell, one of the greatest NCAA, NBA and Olympic basketball players in history, joins the lawsuit brought by Ed O’Bannon alleging that the NCAA has violated federal antitrust law by unlawfully foreclosing former Division I men’s basketball and football players from receiving any compensation related to the commercial use of their images and likenesses,” Jon King, an attorney for the former players, said yesterday in an e-mail.

O’Bannon alleges that the NCAA and Electronic Arts worked together to violate former student-athletes’ rights to control and profit from the use of their images.

The NCAA and Electronic Arts have denied wrongdoing in that case. The company has said in court filings that the constitutional right to free speech under the First Amendment means it doesn’t need permission to use the players’ likenesses because the videos have enough creative elements that, as a whole, they are more than a depiction of any one athlete.

Virtual Players

The games allow users to create their own plays and players’ likenesses are only some of thousands of virtual players in a game that contains other audio, visual and engineering elements, Electronic Arts said in court documents.

Russell won 11 NBA titles with the Celtics. He was a five- time NBA Most Valuable Player and is second on the career list for rebounds with 21,620, trailing only Wilt Chamberlain, his rival throughout the 1960s.

The case is Russell v. NCAA, 11-04938, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California (Oakland).

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