Online jersey sales highlight NCAA's hypocrisy on amateurism
This isn't about Johnny Manziel. It might be about the next Johnny Manziel, though.
The NCAA's rules concerning players' publicity rights are artificial constructs designed to cap the wages of the labor force, keep the IRS away and enforce a quaint-but-ludicrous notion of parity in the upper reaches of football and men's basketball. That's why players can't sell their autographs or get a cut of the profits when their schools sell their jerseys.
But those rules do exist, and, at the moment, breaking them still carries consequences.
So Manziel's best bets if he wants to continue playing quarterback for Texas A&M are either to prove he never received money for autographs or hope the NCAA can't prove he received money for autographs. A civil disobedience defense -- no matter how valid -- probably won't work here.
But the next Johnny Football may not have to worry about some of those rules. He may be able to make money off his own name while still in college on scholarship without fear of scandal. For that, he may be able to thank former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon, his attorneys and his fellow plaintiffs. O'Bannon's class action lawsuit has EA Sports ready to bail and has the NCAA on the ropes, and it's all about publicity rights. The next Johnny Football also will owe a huge thank-you to ESPN commentator Jay Bilas. Bilas, a practicing attorney, former Duke basketball player and perpetual thorn in the NCAA's side, did something on Tuesday afternoon that exposed the organization's inherent hypocrisy in a way everyone -- including future jurors who know may know nothing about college athletics -- can understand.
All Bilas did was type Manziel's last name into a search bar. That search bar was located on the Shop page on NCAA.com. Guess what happened?
Bilas was taken to a page that contained links to buy Texas A&M jerseys emblazoned with the No. 2. Who wears No. 2? Why, Johnny Manziel, of course. But hasn't the NCAA been telling us for years that the organization and the schools it comprises don't profit off the names or likenesses of individual players? If that's the case, why would the name of a player be tied directly to the sale of that player's jersey on the NCAA's official web site?
Bilas tweeted a screen grab of the result.
Surely, it was a coincidence. So Bilas typed "Clowney" into the search bar. Guess what popped up? A page containing links to No. 7 South Carolina jerseys. Who wears No. 7 for South Carolina? Put your hand down, six-year-old Andy Staples. It's not quarterback Mike Hold anymore. The current No. 7 at South Carolina is defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, the presumed No. 1 pick in the 2014 NFL draft. Bilas tweeted a screen grab of that, too.
Then he repeated the exercise using the names of Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd, Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron, and each time he was taken to a page featuring a link to buy that player's replica jersey.
Shortly after Bilas exposed this feature of the site, the search function disappeared from the page. (Which doesn't look guilty at all. No sir.) But the geniuses in Indianapolis forgot to disable the search on the mobile shop site. After alert reader Kyle Jernigan pointed this out to me on Twitter, I searched for the following terms: "Jadeveon Clowney," "Johnny Manziel," "Braxton Miller" and "DeAnthony Thomas." Each time, I was taken to a page featuring links to buy the corresponding player's jersey. Later, the search bar on the mobile site was also disabled.
It should be noted that NCAA.com is managed by Turner Sports, which is owned -- at least for the next few months -- by the same parent company as SI.com. The shop portion of the site is run by a company called Fanatics Retail Group, which bills itself as "the industry's leading provider of outsourced e-commerce solutions to colleges, conferences, professional sports teams and sports media properties." Most of the profits go to the schools, which own the trademarks for the jerseys. This is important because NCAA officials likely will blame the name-product connections on one of the site management companies or some other outside vendor.
No one will believe this, and no one should. As the NCAA's Committee on Infractions would now say to a head coach whose assistants broke NCAA bylaws, it happened on your watch. It's your problem.
Now all that remains is for some enterprising attorney to use that information to bury the NCAA in court. I joked Tuesday on Twitter that Bilas should get a share of the fees collected by the O'Bannon attorneys, but then Jon Solomon of the Birmingham News, who has covered the O'Bannon case as well as anyone, reminded me that lead plaintiffs' attorney Michael Hausfeld uttered three words to judge Claudia Wilken on June 20 that I'm sure he wished Tuesday he could take back.
In the class certification hearing for the O'Bannon case, Wilken was questioning Hausfeld on the plaintiffs' shift in strategy. Originally, they went after part of the profits from the EA Sports video games for former athletes. Now, they're hoping to collect a piece of that money as well as a piece of NCAA and conference television revenue for former and current athletes. Wilken was trying to clarify the strategy when she asked, "I gather jerseys and bobbleheads and all of that are out?" Hausfield's reply: "Yes, your honor." Going after jerseys might require another strategy change, and Hausfeld and his team have a pretty good case as-is. So maybe they should leave this one for someone else.
There is significant value in the jersey issue, and there is tangible proof the NCAA directly tied the identity of the players to the numbers on the jerseys. It's easy money for an attorney and for the plaintiffs, because the NCAA has absolutely no defense. The schools and the organization have maintained for years that they are not selling jerseys tied to particular players because the jerseys do not feature names. We always knew that was a lie, and the NCAA's own search bar proved it on Tuesday.
Need some potential clients? Former Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor seems a logical person to approach. The NCAA painted him as a scoundrel and suspended him for selling his own property. Because of this, Pryor aborted his senior season and wound up in the NFL's supplemental draft. Ohio State sold a boatload of No. 2 jerseys when Pryor was in Columbus. How about former Georgia receiver A.J. Green? The NCAA suspended Green for four games in 2010 for selling his jersey and painted him as an outlaw. The NCAA never took any action against Georgia for selling thousands of No. 8 jerseys during Green's time in Athens.
Who else would make a good plaintiff? Hmmm. Who might like to take a chunk out of the NCAA right now? Who stands to lose a ton of money in the long run because of a bad NCAA rule?
OK. Maybe this was about Johnny Manziel all along.