The question is simple, but the answer is anything but. Will college football teams stop allowing players to sign autographs?
It isn’t a cut-and-dried yes or no—and it rarely ever is, despite the demand for dramatic, instantaneous transformation.
Like anything else, there’s a balance to be had when it comes to autographs and “amateur” athletes. As allegations of Johnny Manziel signings continue to mount—with concrete proof of broken rules still yet to surface—amateurism suddenly has a new bull’s eye on its back.
Prehistoric NCAA practices are being taken to task. At the same time, coaches are scrambling to ensure their star players remain eligible, focusing on how these recent developments could highlight similar issues closer to home.
Teams like Miami and Louisville have joined Texas A&M in modifying autograph policies on their fan days just to play it safe. On the surface, it may seem like a small, predictable change, although these decisions speak volumes.
While Miami and Texas A&M have identified specific items that can be signed, Louisville head coach Charlie Strong announced that players would not be permitted to sign any memorabilia at the team’s fan day, according to ESPN.com:
I would like to personally apologize to our outstanding fans. However, because of the national problem of autographed items appearing for sale on eBay and other websites, we have made a proactive decision to hold an open practice for the fans and forgo an autograph session.
We have monitored the situation closely, and we decided to protect the eligibility of our players and operate under the principle that it is not permissible to accept any type of compensation for their autograph or the sale of memorabilia. I know this will disappoint a lot of our fans, especially the young children who look up to our players, but I strongly feel this is the best decision for our football program.
A signature, for most, is something that can be cherished and enjoyed, tucked away in a glass cabinet to be shared with the occasional visitor. It serves as a trophy, a reminder of the one time you and perhaps your father enjoyed a moment with someone you admire. It has no monetary value to you, regardless of your curiosity over its worth. It’s special for each individual because to him or her it’s one of a kind.
This is the fairytale version. It is real, but it is not alone.
This autograph phenomenon has an ugly underbelly, one that is coming to light as the Manziel saga plays out. For those who gave up on this sentimental trophy grab long ago, this signature can serve as a valuable means of profit—one (or many) that can be flipped quickly for financial gain. There are no good intentions for these brokers (a title that sounds entirely too official for this line of work).
Some of these “brokers”—like the one who purchased a last-minute plane ticket next to Johnny Manziel just so he could badger him at 35,000 feet—make even the shadiest of boosters seem like Mother Teresa.
Autograph seeker who purposely booked himself on a flight next to Manziel offered him $ to sign on flight, Manziel turned it down.— darren rovell (@darrenrovell) August 7, 2013
Painting the autograph-hungry world as composed of a) kids and b) those only interested in profit isn’t exactly correct. There are exceptions, of course, just like anything else, where gray area exists. College football is jam-packed with them.
And there’s a third member of this autograph pie chart, at least in the specific instance of Manziel.
As ESPN.com’s Wright Thompson outlined, Manziel’s parents have served as an unofficial broker of sorts when it comes to his signature. Not necessarily for profit or financial gain, but out of “obligation,” which is open to interpretation.
Whenever he'd see his parents, they'd always have a carload of things to autograph. They hated it, and he did too. But they seemed compelled by manners, and obligation, and one autograph didn't seem like that big a deal. But taken together, they just boxed him in more: Even his own family wanted things from him. Whom could he trust?
Thus, all signatures—at least for the time being—have been grouped under one giant umbrella.
Coaches are interested in keeping their players eligible, which is why a “ban” on these autograph sessions is becoming more widespread. This Band-Aid fix is just that. Schools will learn more about this process (and more specifically, if there’s anything in store for Texas A&M).
Fans and brokers (or families) want the autograph for vastly different reasons, but securing this signature satisfies all parties. There’s a world of difference in marveling over a signed program and counting hundreds in the back room of a warehouse for goods just purchased or sold. But the satisfaction received from someone else’s work (in this case, a barely legible name in cursive) remains the same for all parties.
Except, of course, for the player.
The “student-athlete” is at the mercy of a broken system. A star player is not permitted to capitalize on his star power or even his own signature. The universities can market “Player No. 2” if and when they please—oh, and they will—while the brokers can maneuver their way into the picture, using these athletes as a profit stepping stool.
The only difference between the broker and the NCAA is the NCAA does its work right in front of you, hiding openly behind a system that allows it to exploit. The brokers would much rather stay in the dark corner, doing their duties in airplanes and counting their cash behind closed doors.
Limiting autograph opportunities to select scenarios doesn’t begin to solve the greater problem at hand. It’s a short-term deflection, and an easy one, which is why it may become more prevalent. Further tightening these restrictions, however, will only move further away from what's fair.
The question isn’t whether college football players should be able to sign autographs—because, of course, they should. The larger, potential game-changing query is whether they should be fairly compensated for their efforts.
And that’s a billion-dollar question awaiting a fair reply.
That’s not to say that the floodgates should be thrown open and that the free market should decide which 19-year-old student-athletes should become instant millionaires. This is a delicate issue that requires a delicate, balanced response.
Whether someone’s finally willing to admit it’s a conversation worth having is another story.