Commentary

Selling Johnny Football

Originally Published: February 26, 2013
By Rick Reilly | ESPN.com

Johnny ManzielJerry Lai/USA TODAY SportsWhen Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M won the Heisman Trophy last year, it was a lot better for Texas A&M than it was for Johnny Manziel.

This makes zero sense:

Johnny Manziel, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, is a national sensation -- Johnny Football. His school, Texas A&M, is making the GNP of Kuwait off him in jersey sales and T-shirt sales and ticket sales and donations and anything else it can dream up. To A&M, he's Johnny Man-sell.

And what does Johnny get out of all that? Zero cents.

So when the Manziel family lawyer suggested he trademark the "Johnny Football" nickname so bloodsuckers couldn't rob him of at least that, he agreed. Besides, he had to. According to copyright law, if he didn't trademark it, it was the same as saying he didn't care. Which meant anybody could make money on him. Plus, according to NCAA rules, he or his school had to take some kind of action or he'd risk losing his eligibility.

So he did what his lawyer advised and maybe thought he'd make a few small potatoes off the nickname when -- and if -- he survived three more years of college football and went pro. But since he's only about the size of your average underwriter, that's a very big "if."

Right away, the lawyer found all kinds of people cashing in on the Johnny Football thing. He started suing, beginning with a guy in East Texas selling $20 T-shirts. And right away the critics called Manziel every awful thing they hadn't already called Seth McFarlane: "greedy," "arrogant" and "big-headed."

But get this: The NCAA came out this week and announced that any money he won in any lawsuit, he got to keep. Starting now, not when he turned pro. Now, is that vintage NCAA pretzel logic or what?

We'll throw you in the clink if you take a $3 bagel from a booster, but you can keep lawsuit money, even if it's millions. Have fun!

"Johnny Manziel might suddenly be the tip of the iceberg here," says professor Rick Karcher of the Center for Law and Sports at the Florida Coastal School of Law. "This might lead to athletes finally being able to market their likeness."

So what target should Johnny Football sue next?

The NCAA, of course! And Texas A&M! And the Heisman! And the Cotton Bowl! And anybody else he can dream up!

Because some schlub selling Johnny Football T-shirts out of the back of his van is a Bic lighter compared with the forest fire that's burning Manziel's wallet right now.

What judge would stop him? What judge would rule that a player signs away his right to justice when he takes a scholarship?

It's foolproof! How can the NCAA see the evil in some citizen cashing in unfairly on Manziel's name but not when it does it? How can Texas A&M send out more than 60 cease-and-desist letters to people selling Manziel items, as it says it has, and not accept one itself?

Oh, sure, Texas A&M will tell you it's only selling its generic No. 2 jersey to its fans, not a "Johnny Manziel jersey." Doesn't even have his name on it. Not cashing in on the name at all.

Which is a Texas-sized pile of manure. No kid in America is saying, "Dad, can I please have a Texas A&M No. 2 jersey for Christmas?" No, that kids wants "a Johnny Manziel jersey," and nothing else.

We know that because of the nearly 2,000 Manziel items for sale on eBay right now -- including an autographed helmet for $1,250 -- every single one of them mentions Manziel's name or nickname in the ad. The name is the whole point. The magic Manziel plies with his feet and his arm and his heart is the reason people want the stuff. Texas A&M and the NCAA know they're running a fabulous grift here. And so would any judge from here to Halifax.

This isn't paying players. This is paying a national star a tiny portion of the millions he's made his school. Money he's earned with greatness. Money we can quantify.

[+] EnlargeBryce Harper
Joy R. Absalon/USA TODAY SportsBryce Harper might say "This is a clown caption, bro."

For instance, a study by Joyce Julius & Associates found that, last season alone, Manziel was worth $37 million in "media exposure" (free advertising) for the Aggies. By December, the school bookstore sold out all 2,500 replica jerseys it had. There's a guy on eBay who says he's sold 625 "Johnny Football" T-shirts at $20 each. The Collegiate Licensing Company figures that winning a Heisman increases your sales and royalties by 27.5 percent over five years. Imagine the increase in donations and applications alone to A&M. Meanwhile, Manziel's coaches all got raises.

And what does Manziel get? He gets all the crap of being famous but none of the cash. He takes all online classes because so many fellow students want pictures, then gets ripped for being "too good" for everybody else. He posts a few pictures on his Instagram account and people respond with, "Shouldn't you be studying?" He tries to protect a little part of his financial future, and online boobs like Cody P. snark, "How many people do that? Nobody."

Nobody? Try hundreds of athletes you've heard of. And not just their nicknames. Tiger Woods trademarked his initials. Bryce Harper trademarked the phrase "That's a clown question, bro!" Famously unibrowed NBA star Anthony Davis has filed to trademark "Fear The Brow."

But hey, starting next year, the NCAA says Manziel can take a whopping $300 stipend, yearly.

Whoo-eee! How ON EARTH will he spend it?

People, be fair. What would be wrong with Manziel getting a piece of the pie he baked himself? Let's say he got a third of the profits of every product with his number on it -- coffee mugs, hats, key chains, everything -- with the money going into a trust account, to be given to him when he leaves school. And -- get this, Aggie Fan -- maybe he'd stay in school longer if he thinks that school isn't ripping him off.

We're through the looking glass here, people.

Maybe, finally, the NCAA might have to cease and desist the financial exploitation of its jocks.

Figures Johnny Football would find the weakness in the defense, doesn't it?

Rick Reilly | email

Columnist, ESPN.com