How To Fix The NCAA Rule That May Ensnare Johnny Manziel



CREDIT: Associated Press

The next episode in soap opera that has become Johnny Manziel’s offseason broke Sunday evening, when ESPN reported that the NCAA is investigating claims that the Heisman Trophy-winning Texas A&M quarterback may have accepted a “five-figure flat fee” to autograph assorted memorabilia while he was in Miami during the national championship game in January.

Manziel’s off-field exploits this offseason have overshadowed many of the on-field accomplishments that made him Johnny Football last fall, and that has made him anything but a sympathetic figure in the eyes of many football fans and observers. Manziel knew the rule and still broke it, so maybe he doesn’t deserve sympathy here. And as CBS Sports’ Gregg Doyel argued, he doesn’t need the money:

There’s an argument to be made that the college system is ripping off the labor, but Johnny Manziel isn’t the typical college football labor. His family is loaded. We don’t know how much money they have, but we know this: Manziel is the great-grandson of an oil baron. He grew up in a house on the golf course. He drives a Mercedes-Benz. Lots of athletes break NCAA rules and sell autographs for money because they need it. If the report is true, Johnny Manziel broke NCAA rules because he wanted it. And that’s different.

But it isn’t different and it doesn’t matter whether Manziel needed the money or not. The short-term issue in this case is, as Doyel noted, whether Manziel jeopardized his eligibility and Texas A&M’s season by breaking the rule. The real issue, though, is the question Doyel alluded to: whether Manziel or any other college athlete has the right to have any control over the value of his name. The NCAA investigation, which is far from a certain success, stems from Manziel’s alleged violation of Bylaw, which prohibits athletes from making money for promoting or endorsing commercial products or services. In effect, it keeps them from monetizing their name or their status as a college athlete, whether through signing autographs or starting their own businesses or in any other way.

Note that the rule doesn’t prevent anyone else from making money off that name. The NCAA makes plenty off of Manziel and other athletes. So do television networks like ESPN and CBS, which will show most of Texas A&M’s games next year. So, too, does A&M, for which Manziel was worth more than $37 million in free media exposure last year, according to one study. Just last month, A&M boosters sold a seat with Manziel at a fundraising dinner for $20,000. Even memorabilia dealers can take a cut, since it’s fine for them to sell jerseys, helmets, footballs, and anything else Manziel has emblazoned with his signature as long as he doesn’t share in the profits.

The good news is that it isn’t necessarily a hard problem to fix. As Yahoo’s Dan Wetzel wrote Sunday, the International Olympic Committee changed its rules to allow athletes to sign endorsement deals in 1980. For years, the IOC argued that such a change would ruin the Olympics. And yet the Games have thrived since, even as athletes accept endorsement money and pursue business interests outside of their sport.

In the NCAA, there are concerns about whether scrapping the rule outright would increase the influence of boosters and outside interests who could steer players to certain schools by paying absurd rates for autographs or in other ways. Those effects are almost surely overstated — the best players already go to the best schools — but if opponents insist that it will be a problem, there are ways to mitigate them. An incremental change that leaves some control in the hands of the schools and NCAA — perhaps by allowing athletes to receive compensation for signing autographs only at certain, sanctioned events — could help balance those concerns and athletes’ rights at the same time, and even if it isn’t ideal, it would be better than what we have now.

In any event, those concerns shouldn’t totally outweigh athletes’ rights to monetize their own names and images like anyone else. A rule that allows everyone to make money except for the person who is the impetus for that money is a bad rule. And it’s a bad rule whether it affects someone who doesn’t need the money, like Johnny Football, or anyone else.