The University of Georgia announced Thursday that Todd Gurley, the Bulldogs’ leading rusher, Heisman Trophy candidate, and likely the best running back in the nation, was suspended indefinitely for “violating NCAA rules.” Though UGA didn’t specify which rule Gurley had broken, Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples later reported that Gurley had accepted $400 for signing 80 pieces of memorabilia, which constitutes impermissible benefits under NCAA rules.
Later, TMZ reported that Gurley accepted even more, as much as $2,000 for his autograph, and ESPN’s Darren Rovell tweeted that there were 250 pieces of memorabilia featuring Gurley’s signature on one auction site, and that Gurley sought anywhere from $8 to $25 per signature. Sports Illustrated reported that there was video and photos of Gurley signing memorabilia, though none showed proof of cash changing hands. How Georgia found out about the memorabilia isn’t clear, but SB Nation’s Spencer Hall wrote this morning that he had received an email in September from an anonymous tipster who said he had paid Gurley to autograph merchandise, and the details in SI’s report match much of what was offered in the email (which SB Nation didn’t report, because, in Hall’s words, “the purpose of this website is not to enforce the NCAA’s insane bylaws”).
If the reports are true — Georgia is investigating — Gurley violated NCAA Bylaw 126.96.36.199, which prohibits college athletes from making money for promoting commercial merchandise, including merchandise with their signature on it. If that sounds familiar, it is the same bylaw that ensnared another high-profile Heisman Trophy candidate — Texas A&M; quarterback Johnny Manziel — last year, when Manziel allegedly accepted a “five-figure flat fee” to sign autographs while in Miami for the national championship game. Manziel missed half a game, but his happened in the offseason and allowed plenty of time to investigate. Gurley will miss more time than that, with some estimating he’ll sit out at least two or three games while the investigation plays out.
The Manziel case drew attention to the absurdity and hypocrisy of these rules, and Gurley’s should too. The University of Georgia, the Southeastern Conference, and the NCAA make huge amounts of money off of athletes like Gurley. In 2013, for instance, UGA’s athletic department generated nearly $100 million in revenues. The University of Georgia team shop sells jerseys featuring the running back’s number. The SEC’s broadcast deals with CBS and ESPN are worth more than $3 billion over a decade. Georgia pays its head coach, Mark Richt, $3.2 million per season and its athletic director, Greg McGarity, $525,000 per year. Corporate entities attached to college football, from TV networks like ESPN to apparel giants like Nike to corporate sponsors, all make huge amounts of money from the business. The memorabilia dealer who paid Gurley for his signature (then apparently reported him for it) is free to profit from selling the items.
Everyone involved in the business of major college athletics is allowed to make money — except the athletes, who are limited by inane NCAA bylaws to the aid schools give them. This is, of course, a rule that doesn’t apply to any other students either, as any “normal” student is able to use his name or a product he came up with to make money outside of his school work.
The use of athletes’ names, images, and likenesses has been the topic of major dispute both inside and outside the collegiate system recently, as a cadre of former athletes led by former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon sued the NCAA for violating antitrust laws by refusing to let them profit off their names, images, and likenesses. The athletes won a limited victory in the case when Judge Claudia Wilken ruled that they should share in merchandise and broadcast revenues generated by the sale of their names, images, and likenesses, but Wilken ruled that they still could not accept money for endorsements or for selling signatures, saying that doing so would “undermine the efforts of both the NCAA and its member schools to protect against the ‘commercial exploitation’ of student-athletes.” Other cases moving through the legal system that seek injunctions against NCAA scholarship and monetary limits, however, could eventually make even bigger changes to the NCAA system (the NCAA has tried to head off some of these challenges by seeking some rule changes, like allowing stipends and full cost-of-attendance scholarships).
There’s an argument that regardless of the inanity of these rules, Gurley knew them and shouldn’t have broken them. Which is probably true. But that doesn’t change the larger picture: every time a case like this emerges, it makes it easier to see how outdated, perverse, and hypocritical these rules are. There are easy ways to fix them, like following in the footsteps of the International Olympic Committee, which was once just as obsessed as the NCAA with amateurism but now allows athletes to make money from endorsements. But the longer they exist, the more likely it becomes that athletes are going to try to force changes, whether by organizing or continually taking their battles to the courtroom in an effort to strike the entire system — or at least large chunks of it — down.
Georgia’s official team store was still selling jerseys featuring Gurley’s #3 when his suspension was announced Thursday night, with retail prices between $89.95 and $134.95. But as of Friday, those jerseys no longer appear in the online team shop at georgiadogs.com.
Asked in an email if the jerseys were no longer for sale on the site because of Gurley’s suspension, Claude Felton, UGA’s senior associate athletic director for sports communications said, “Yes.”
Though the NCAA has argued even in court that replica jerseys do not represent specific athletes, schools regularly sell replica jerseys with the numbers of their most prominent players, whether it’s Gurley’s #3, Jameis Winston’s #5 at Florida State, or any other.
The NCAA drew public criticism for hypocrisy last year over jersey sales when amid Manziel’s suspension, frequent NCAA critic and ESPN analyst Jay Bilas found that typing Manziel’s name into the search bar in the NCAA team shop brought up Texas A&M; jerseys with Manziel’s #2. The same happened for other athletes, like USC’s Marqise Lee or Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater. The NCAA responded by deleting its search bar at first. A day later, NCAA president Mark Emmert said the NCAA shop would no longer sell jerseys and said he understood “how that would be seen as hypocritical.” Schools, however, continue to sell jerseys that clearly represent current athletes on their own web sites.