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Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown is suing EA (and Sony, oddly enough) for using his likeness in the Madden series without paying him. It's a strange lawsuit but it could actually have some significant consequences for the games.
So what's the case? The All-Cleveland Browns team in Madden has an African American running back wearing a number 32 jersey, which is the same jersey number, team, and position as Brown. In fact, the Browns retired that number altogether because of him. It's obvious to everyone that this is supposed to be Jim Brown. This was even apparent in earlier versions of Madden when the jersey numbers were all wrong. If you're playing the All-San Francisco 49ers team and the quarterback is #85, you still know damn well he's supposed to be Joe Montana.
If the jersey numbers didn't match up, would it be okay? What if the All-Cleveland Browns team's running back was still #32 but happened to be white? I'm not sure how dissimilar a video game character has to be from its real-life counterpart to not be considered a "likeness" anymore. The fact that the historical teams still have their real NFL names and logos means it's pretty clear who each player on the team is if you're a football buff. Hell, even if the All-Cleveland Browns were renamed the All-Ohio Burnt Siennas for the next Madden, I'd still know the running back is supposed to be Jim Brown.
Assuming Brown's lawsuit is successful, the quickest way out for EA is to just stop including historical teams in its games. They could also make deals with the unions of these retired players - though not all of them actually belong to these unions. Or EA could scramble up the jersey numbers, team names, and physical likenesses so much that there's little resemblance between these historical teams and their real world counterparts, which sort of defeats the nostalgic purpose of having historical teams in the first place.