- Rick Reilly, Columnist, ESPN.com
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Why is America sweating Johnny Manziel? I know two superstar collegians who took way more cash for autographs in school. Millions, in fact. They got paid for slapping their names on clothes, movies, even toothbrushes. They made huge money for appearances, speeches and photo sessions while in college. And the NCAA never even harrumphed at them.
Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. The Olsen twins.
Just like Manziel, they were talented and famous. Just like Manziel, they went to college. Unlike Manziel, they were allowed to participate in the free-market system. They had three lines of clothing, makeup deals and even did a movie, "New York Minute," while attending New York University.
Not Johnny Manziel. If the reigning Heisman Trophy winner really did sell an hour's worth of his signature, he'll probably be suspended from the Texas A&M football team.
See, the NCAA has very clear rules: Everybody and their gastroenterologists can make money off Johnny Manziel except Manziel himself. The pursuit of wealth is available to every person enrolled at Texas A&M except student-athletes. The whiz pianist, the science prodigy, even the hopeful sportswriter. When I was at the University of Colorado, I worked 40 hours a week at the town newspaper, writing. Nobody threatened to throw me out of school.
Look at the unnecessary hell that's rained on college football in the wake of this scandal, in which Manziel may have violated NCAA rules for signing memorabilia for a man named Drew Tieman, who's been busted twice for drugs. Turns out, Manziel may have signed his name more than 4,000 times in one month, according to ESPN's "Outside the Lines." And ESPN reporter Joe Schad had two sources tell him that Manziel signed 300 autographs for $7,500 in January.
But so what? It's his name, isn't it? Do we really live in a world where you can't do what you want with your own name ?
Not long ago, an outfit called Heritage Auctions got $7,760 for a jersey Manziel wore when he beat Alabama last season, and a pair of cleats he wore in 2011. One jersey and one pair of cleats made more than that first entire alleged autograph session. How did Heritage get this stuff? They won't say. Why isn't Manziel getting a cut of his own stuff? Good question.
"It's a joke," Manziel's father, Paul, told reporters in March. "They're all trying to make a dollar."
And if the NCAA is investigating Manziel for these incidents, how can they not look into South Carolina stud defensive end Jadeveon Clowney? The autograph authentication firm of PSA/DNA says they've validated "many, many" Clowney signatures this offseason, according to its president, Joe Orlando. "There were at least two lots of over 300 consecutive-number authentications of Mr. Clowney's signature," Orlando says.
Did he get paid for them?
"I have no idea," Orlando says.
How often does somebody sign 300 autographs in a row and not get paid?
"It has happened, for charity, but it's rare," Orlando says. "Less than 1 percent of the time."
And if it's not for charity, what is it, usually?
"It's almost always a paid business arrangement."
South Carolina officials say they've investigated these unusually large lots of consecutive Clowney autographs and decided there was no wrongdoing.
Again, so what? Clowney is not a player South Carolina is trying to recruit. It's not booster money. It's not illegal. In fact, it's not only perfectly legal, it's a great way to do business. South Carolina should know. It just held its annual Fan Day, where fans swarmed Clowney and his teammates to get autographs. Schools do it because it builds business, increases ticket sales and even donations. They just don't let their student-athletes in on the game.
Student-chemists, yes. Student-athletes, no.
Even a simple and smart idea -- like letting players get what they can for their autograph, their likeness, their appearance, and then have that money go into a trust fund for the day they graduate -- has been shot down by the NCAA.
Why doesn't the NCAA want players cashing in on their talent? Because they're doing it.
As noted by ESPN's Jay Bilas last week, all you had to do was go to the NCAA's online shopping website, type in "Johnny Manziel," and an image of his jersey would pop up, despite the NCAA's caterwauling that players are not exploited at the NCAA register.
So busted, in fact, that the day after the Bilas bombshell, the NCAA shut down the shopping site. Doesn't matter. It's too late. This is the smoking gun that Ed O'Bannon has been hoping for in his federal anti-trust lawsuit against the NCAA. So even though the NCAA won't do the right thing, hopefully judges soon will.
But until that day, madness prevails in college football. Louisville will not allow autographs at its football fan day event, and Georgia will only let players sign posters supplied by the school. Expect more schools to follow suit. Nice. So a 7-year-old kid who used to be able to come on the field, meet his hero, get an autograph and keep it in his favorite secret box for the rest of his life gets stiffed, on the off-chance that he might sell it for a bag of Skittles.
And what will all of this autograph-banning do? It will make it all worse.
"Now you're limiting the amount of signatures out there," Orlando points out, "which means the supply is down. If the demand continues, you have low supply, high demand. The price is going to go up and so is the fervor to get these autographs. And now you've set up an environment for people to fake the signatures."
Well, why not? The whole system is fake.
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