Sign here: The great autograph debate

semerson@macon.comAugust 7, 2013 

Receiver Rhett McGowan signs a Georgia helmet for a fan during the lead-up to the Outback Bowl in 2011.

UGA SPORTS COMMUNICATIONS

ATHENS - Georgia cornerback Sheldon Dawson was midway through some interviews Monday when a fan approached the sophomore and asked for an autograph. Dawson signed, and the fan moved on.

No money exchanged hands. And even if he were a bigger name, according to NCAA rules Dawson would not be able to profit by his signature.

“It’s a rule, and basically we need to abide by it,” Dawson said.

But should it be the rule? That’s the larger debate the Johnny Manziel story has sparked, one which not only touches on autographs, but amateurism in general.

The issue is an interesting one for a program that a few years ago saw its star receiver suspended four games for selling his jersey. A few former players — but not A.J. Green himself — have tweeted that given Green’s situation, Manziel should receive a harsher punishment if the allegations are true.

As for the current players, a few lobbied hard for the right to make money off their likenesses, which goes to the heart of Ed O’Bannon’s ongoing lawsuit against the NCAA.

And as for selling their autographs, there was disagreement. But senior defensive end Garrison Smith talked pretty passionately about the right of athletes to make money — including off of autographs.

“You should be able to make yourself some money,” Smith said. “You can’t have a job because of your football schedule, and school life is so busy. So you need some kind of way to get some income. ...

“So if you can get something and get some money off a simple signature, why not? What’s so bad about a signature? How are you hurting somebody by just signing something? Some of the people you’re signing for are putting your signature on eBay. So they’re making money off of you, so why is it wrong for you to make some money off yourself? People have got families. A lot of players I know have kids. How are you gonna get your kids some diapers? How are you gonna get your kids some baby food if you don’t have money?”

But head coach Mark Richt expressed a reservation, shared by many, that it would lead to larger problems.

“I just don’t know how it could all work where it didn’t become so hard to manage,” Richt said. “If you just said, ‘OK everybody can sell their stuff,’ you can just imagine yourself what that might turn into and how problematic it could become.”

Richt did agree that athletes should get some money, reiterating his support for “at least” a $2,000 cost-of-attendance stipend, which the SEC has supported.

“And we were ready to go further than that,” Richt said. “But we think that’s the best shot of getting more money into the hands of our players.”

For now, however, selling autographs is against NCAA rules, and eBay and other websites are full of purported autographs of famous current players. A framed photo of star quarterback Aaron Murray, along with his purported signature, was being auctioned for $29.99 “or best offer” on eBay on Wednesday afternoon. Another photo, one of Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall — allegedly signed by both tailbacks — was asking for $99.99 or best offer.

It’s not against NCAA rules to sign an autograph, and schools can’t control whether someone turns around and sells it. The problem is if a player knowingly receives money in exchange for his autograph.

Richt said there are staffers within his program who likely try to keep tabs on their players and avoid Manziel-like problems. But the coach knows there’s only so much that can be done.

“We have (players) that are friendly. When they’re at the grocery store and people ask them if they can have a picture and ‘Would you mind signing this,’ my guys I’m sure sign it,” Richt said. “We haven’t really sat down (and discussed it). They know they can’t do anything for money. But normal civility of a guy who has some celebrity in his life, most people will stop and take a picture or sign for someone.”

Junior defensive end Ray Drew didn’t want to reveal his opinion on autographs, but he didn’t sound like he had sympathy for Manziel, if it is true that he sold his autograph.

“I do have a personal opinion on it. I won’t give it,” Drew said with a laugh. “As far as the case right now, no matter what you want to do, as much as one might believe that it’s your name (and) you better be able to make money off of your own name, there are guidelines and rules that have been set into place. So until they’re changed, you have to follow them. That’s part of life. You might not want to go to practice every day or you might not want to do the speed limit while you’re driving, but you have to, because that’s the rule and the regulation. And until something is changed that’s what you have to go by.”

Sophomore linebacker Jordan Jenkins was one player who said players shouldn’t be able to sell their autographs. Jenkins does think players should be compensated in general, but he doesn’t think autographs should cost money, period.

“I personally don’t think anybody should have to pay for an autograph,” Jenkins said. “I never liked that, growing up, where they’d have signings, and people would be like, ‘Hey, give me $20 for that autograph.’ That’s just a small thing, you can just sign something and be good with it.”

But otherwise, Jenkins sympathizes with the plaintiffs in the O’Bannon case.

“It’s sort of like you’re getting screwed off the system because you’re making everybody else money,” Jenkins said. “The NCAA, I don’t care what they say, it’s based on your likeness; that’s money they’re making off our image and stuff like that. ... It’s sort of like you’re earning other people money for four years, and you don’t get a little bit of it. I know some people say it goes to the scholarship, but I feel like athletes earn the university so much more money than that scholarship.”

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