No organization, not even the omnipresent National Collegiate Athletic Association, should own a man's name.
According to a report by ESPN's Darren Rovell and Justine Gubar, the NCAA is investigating reigning Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel for reportedly receiving a "five-figure flat fee" in exchange for signing hundreds of autographs on photos and sports memorabilia.
The NCAA frowns upon student-athletes using their celebrity to make money, especially if it was obtained because of one's performance as a student-athlete. A Heisman Trophy winner can become famous for being college football's best player, but the NCAA will not allow him to make any money off that fame without giving up his ability to continue playing college football.
The NCAA and its member institutions—the primary benefactors of a multi-billion-dollar industry—hold the rules of "amateurism" over every student-athlete, owning the rights to everything about them, including their name, until their eligibility is exhausted.
The NCAA rulebook, being revised and streamlined this summer, is 444 pages, 17 of which deal expressly with the rule of "Amateurism." (The old book has regulations on what kind of spread a student-athlete could put on a bagel without it being a violation.)
According to the NCAA, a student-athlete is allowed to make money, just not off his or her own name:
1. A student-athlete may establish his or her own business, provided the student-athlete’s name, photograph, appearance or athletics reputation are not used to promote the business. (Adopted: 12/12/06)
The NCAA has no problem with Johnny Manziel being in business, as long as he's not in the business of himself.
In a way, the rule makes sense. Not allowing a student-athlete to make money off his name prevents local businesses and team boosters from paying a player as an independent contractor to show up for appearances and autographs in a backdoor deal with schools to help procure recruits.
Schools can't pay players, but if the local car wash or grocery store has a "Local State University" football autograph day where every player is paid $50,000 to appear, the playing field across college athletics would appear to be anything but level.
And yet this is how ridiculous the rule can be in reality. Manziel could have a side business showing up to events as a clown, but if people knew he was the clown or his business promoted it as "Johnny Manziel's Clownarama," it would be an NCAA violation because people know the name Johnny Manziel for his exploits as a student-athlete, not, in this scenario, as a clown.
Yet we're talking about his name.
A man or woman should be able to make money off his or her name, even if that name has become valuable because of collegiate athletics.
If the NCAA can make money off a player's name, why can't the player?
1. Compensation may be paid to a student-athlete: (Revised: 11/22/04)
(a) Only for work actually performed; and
(b) At a rate commensurate with the going rate in that locality for similar services.
1. Such compensation may not include any remuneration for value or utility that the student-athlete may have for the employer because of the publicity, reputation, fame or personal following that he or she has obtained because of athletics ability.
Let's translate that NCAA law as well. A student-athlete may be paid for work, as long as that work is in no way related to his or her celebrity, even if they are a Heisman Trophy winner who helped his school earn millions upon millions of dollars in television revenue, booster donations and bowl-game winnings.
In this scenario, Manziel could take a job working as a clown for someone else and get paid the same as all the other clowns in the area, but it would still be a violation if the employer used Manziel's name as one of the clowns to grow his business.
It's the NCAA that looks like the biggest bunch of clowns in all of this.
Manziel has already won a mantle full of trophies while Texas A&M and the NCAA made millions of dollars off his name. Now that Manziel wants to make a little money off his name as well, he may be kicked out of college football.
Manziel is not without fault here. Let's be straight on one very important fact in all of this NCAA nonsense: The rules may be antiquated and unfair, but they are very clear. If Manziel took money for his autograph, he violated the most obvious rule in the NCAA book.
The rule may be wrong and unreasonable, but breaking it would be an enormous violation. Manziel knew that, and if the report is true that he accepted payment for his autograph, he will have to face the consequences.
The clever conundrum with the NCAA rulebook is that most outside the organization—and many within—realize how unjust and ridiculous some of the policies are. But instances like this, when a player reportedly tries to break the rules for personal gain, serve to only further validate their importance.
If the rule is unfair, it doesn't mean a player can just decide to break it without facing repercussions.
Rule 126.96.36.199.7 (in itself a mouthful) is the most patently unfair rule in all of sports, amateur or otherwise.
It's one thing to offer tuition, room and board in exchange for athletic services. It's entirely another to write into the laws of Intercollegiate Athletics a bylaw that specifically states student-athletes are permitted to participate in money-raising events so long as all the money goes to the school, conference or affiliated agency while the player gets nothing for participating:
Student-Athletes. Institutional, charitable or educational promotions or fundraising activities that involve the use of athletics ability by student-athletes to obtain funds (e.g., “swim-a-thons”) are permitted only if:
(a) All money derived from the activity or project go directly to the member institution, member conference or the charitable, educational or nonprofit agency; (Revised: 5/11/05)
(b) The student-athletes receive no compensation or prizes for their participation
The rule is borderline criminal and yet it is written as clear as day. All the players who sign up to participate in NCAA activities know it exists.
The teams, conferences and governing bodies can make as much money as they want off you and your likeness, but you don't get a dime no matter how valuable you become.
There was no player in college football more valuable to the NCAA in 2012 than "Johnny Football," and because the NCAA rules were put in place to protect members (the schools) by indenturing its actual participants (the student-athletes), the organization's most marketable commodity may be stuck watching the 2013 season with the rest of us.
The NCAA's treatment of its student-athletes is a modern-day Oliver Twist. Replace "Oliver" with "Johnny" in Charles Dickens' historic novel of haves versus have-nots, and you can all but picture NCAA figurehead Mark Emmert playing the role of Mr. Limbkins.
Child as he was, he was desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery. He rose from the table; and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in hand, said: somewhat alarmed at his own temerity:
"Please, sir, I want some more."
The board were sitting in solemn conclave, when Mr. Bumble rushed into the room in great excitement, and addressing the gentleman in the high chair, said,
"Mr. Limbkins, I beg your pardon, sir! Oliver Twist has asked for more!"
There was a general start. Horror was depicted on every countenance.
"For more!" said Mr. Limbkins. "Compose yourself, Bumble, and answer me distinctly. Do I understand that he asked for more, after he had eaten the supper allotted by the dietary?"
"He did, sir," replied Bumble.
"That boy will be hung," said the gentleman in the white waistcoat. "I know that boy will be hung."
Now, Manziel is hardly desperate with hunger nor reckless with misery, as noted by Wright Thompson of ESPN, and you will see the Manziel family is very far from being paupers. But in the context of the money drawn into college football's coffers, the pittance afforded to the student-athletes is the contextual equivalent of a bowl of gruel.
And in a way, Thompson's profile on Manziel may have given the NCAA a nudge to investigate the Heisman winner even more in this tumultuous offseason. In the piece, Manziel comes off as an unrepentant rule-breaker, and his father Paul as a rich overgrown child of a man willing to let his son break the rules whenever he wants, as long as it benefits the family.
In at least three different instances in Thompson's piece, the 20-year-old Manziel was said to have drank different alcoholic beverages in public or private, often with his father's approval. The NCAA cannot love that.
There's also the jet-setting around the country to sporting events and concerts, something a young man with family means like Manziel is certainly entitled to do, but actions the NCAA would take notice of just the same.
And then there's this, in Thompson's piece, which may directly conspire against Manziel's ability to remain eligible:
Johnny signed everything, no matter how much he grumbled and cursed with a pen in his hand. 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.
Manners, obligation…and money?
If Manziel was always signing autographs for whoever wanted one—Wright explained a situation on Manziel's local golf course where the quarterback actually had to sign a hat for a childhood teacher—doesn't it stand to reason that a player whose family is so clearly frustrated with the way the NCAA and Texas A&M have profited off "Johnny Football" would sign a few hundred items for a little something in return?
That may be an unfair leap to make, but it's certainly not unfair for the NCAA to want to keep a closer eye on its biggest football star. And while this particular rule is unfair, it is a rule. If Manziel knowingly broke that rule, he will have to face the punishment of the NCAA.
Two wrongs rarely make a right, and while few would side with the NCAA on the organization's ability to capitalize off the celebrity of its student-athletes while preventing them from doing the same themselves, Manziel signed the papers to play by those rules. His sudden celebrity doesn't get to change that.
While it may be hard to fathom at times, there is a reason the NCAA exists. Having worked in college athletics under the rules and regulations of the NCAA for more than 15 years, I never actually figured out that reason. And yet to someone in an ivory tower draped in amateurism and surrounded by the most level playing fields in all the land, there is a reason.
The Manziel family hasn't figured out that reason either. Or, if they have, they don't think it applies to their son.
Depending on the outcome of Johnny Football vs. The NCAA, we all might be questioning the reasons for a lot of things. Still, the best way to get a rule changed is never to break it first. If Manziel did that—with every spotlight in the country shining upon him—understanding why will be the biggest question of all.