Kadeisha Buchanan, the best young player at this summer’s Women’s World Cup, is a fantastic talent, the kind of player you can only dream of being. That’s why the news that a select few female soccer players would be included in the latest edition of FIFA was so exciting. That’s also why the news that EA has removed Buchanan and 12 other female players from FIFA 16 for fear of compromising their NCAA eligibility is so disappointing.
This is, on the one hand, a decidedly old-school story. A videogame developer sets out to make a sports game but has a hard time securing image rights. Been there done that. Ed O’Bannon, whose antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA centred on student athletes’ inability to profit from their image rights, made reference to players on UCLA’s 1995 basketball team having their likenesses used in a videogame without permission or compensation. The NCAA can profit from image rights; players cannot. EA’s current predicament—“The NCAA recently informed EA Sports that these 13 student-athletes would be risking their eligibility for collegiate athletics by being included in FIFA 16”—is hardly unusual.
And yet, since women’s sports tend to get short shrift (not only in videogames), this is also an unusual scenario.
On the back of a successful World Cup, it was hoped that the infrastructure around women’s soccer could grow to the point where it could effectively support a greater number of players. To an extent, this came to pass. NWSL attendance increased 30% after the World Cup. Games started to sell out. Female stars were finally included in FIFA 16. Sure, their clubs weren’t included in the game, but it was a start.
— EA SPORTS FIFA (@EASPORTSFIFA) July 20, 2015
Yet the NCAA’s demand that thirteen female players be removed from FIFA 16 is a reminder of how far that start is from the ultimate end goal of building a supportive infrastructure. It is so unbelievably hard to make a living as a female soccer player. You can’t be paid while in college. You could surely earn more doing almost anything other than playing in the NWSL, where salaries range from $6,842 to $37,800. If you’re really lucky, you get to play for a national team, and there’s some money in that—at least in America. But the US men’s team received four times more than its World Cup-winning women for failing to make the 2014 World Cup quarterfinals. Every option on the decision tree is a reminder that female achievements go woefully undercompensated.
The NCAA separates all sorts of athletes from the profits they generate, but this case feels pettier. There are so few outlets for the likes of Kadeisha Buchanan, so few places to be compensated for their talent and hard work. And now yet another door has been closed. In making FIFA 16, EA operated under the assumption that women’s national teams operated in the same world as their male counterparts, a world where clubs pay and develop players. EA was wrong: not even virtually reality could escape the systemic inequality with which women’s soccer must reckon.