The NCAA has always been great at making people who commit decidedly non-criminal acts look like criminals, but the punishment for Georgia tailback Todd Gurley’s sale of autographs included one little nugget that further drives home the point. After announcing that Gurley would be suspended for four games -- two of which he has already missed -- for taking more than $3,000 in exchange for his signature, the NCAA tacked on 40 hours of community service.
Taking part in community service is fine and good, but attached to this ruling it looks like a criminal sentence. And what crime did Gurley commit? Did he hurt anyone? No. Did he steal from anyone? No. Gurley accepted money because his extraordinary ability in a certain field makes his signature very valuable. Anywhere else, that’s called free enterprise. In major college athletics, it means he generates the same number of negative headlines as someone who robs a store or beats up his girlfriend.
It doesn’t need to be this way. And it’s going to change. This week NCAA president Mark Emmert asked schools to revisit their stance on the sale of autographs. He said he wants them to either reaffirm their commitment to the rules or change them, but the fact is they must change because they won't survive a legal challenge. The NCAA just lost a case in federal court over the use of groups of athletes' names, images and likenesses. One case already in the pipeline (Jenkins v. NCAA) challenges every NCAA restriction on athlete income. Since law schools are seemingly creating entire concentrations dedicated to teaching how to sue the NCAA, it won’t be long before an enterprising attorney goes the narrower route and sues over individual name, image and likeness rights of athletes.
Why do the University of Georgia and the NCAA own Gurley’s name? Georgia paid for it in the form of a scholarship. But the problem is the Bulldogs paid the same price for Gurley’s name as they did for the name of backup offensive lineman Watts Dantzler. And while I’d probably give Dantzler a few bucks to sign a printout of his consistently entertaining Twitter feed, demand for his signature lags significantly behind demand for Gurley’s signature. So Gurley, with the help of multiple autograph brokers, attempted to close that gap. Why did Gurley have such an opportunity? Because the market always corrects for an imbalance.
Of course, Gurley knew this was against the rules. It was a poor decision on his part since he didn’t weigh the effect a potential suspension would have on his team. The rule existed. He knew and broke it anyway. That doesn’t mean the rule needs to exist. Those who use the “rules are rules” argument to justify an unjust punishment fail to understand this nation wouldn’t exist in its current form had “rules are rules” mindsets carried the day in the 1770s, the early 1900s or the 1960s.
Another problem with the rule is that the punishment doesn’t actually have much tangible effect on Gurley’s future prospects, thus giving him little incentive to abide. He misses four games? Great, the NFL general managers say. That’s 80 fewer carries on his odometer.
So, you can see why Gurley would sign autographs for money. His problem is that while he helped correct one market imbalance, he didn’t respect the law of supply and demand enough to stay out of trouble. A Georgia man who had worked in the autograph business went to Georgia’s compliance office and dropped the dime on Gurley because there were too many Gurley autographs flooding the market and driving down the price of the autographed items that man had for sale. The man told university officials he paid Gurley $400 to sign 80 items, but that $400 is only part of the overhead for an autograph broker. He also must purchase helmets -- full-size and mini -- jerseys and footballs to be signed. The initial investment for a mass signing is in the thousands, not the hundreds. And when the market gets saturated and the price drops, that investment is tough to recoup.
When Georgia looked into the matter, it found more evidence of Gurley signing for money. Is $3,000 all he got? That’s impossible for anyone but Gurley to say. Let’s put it this way. Hardly anyone signs 80-90 items for the same person at once out of the kindness of his heart. Photos of long lines at fan day as proof that certain athletes are signing for free don’t really exonerate anyone, because the chance of 90 consecutive fans submitting non-personalized autographed items to the same authenticator is zero.
Gurley is lucky all the tipster did was tattle. In some cash-only businesses, they don’t settle such disputes with a phone call to the compliance office. And that’s another problem with the NCAA’s rules. The schools -- which make the rules -- claim to want to eliminate shady third parties, but the regulations actually push the athletes into the arms of the third parties, because the third parties are willing to help correct that market imbalance. It’s great for the other guys, whether they’re buying autographs or influence. Paying someone for something the market values isn’t usually a crime, so nothing will happen to them. (Some states have laws against interfering with a college athlete’s eligibility, but law enforcement officials tend to ignore those to focus on actual crime.) Had Gurley had an NCAA-approved, regulated way to get paid for the autographs the market clearly desired, he wouldn’t have to deal with people who might try to harm his eligibility or worse.
The players didn’t turn college football into a multibillion-dollar business. The conference commissioners and athletic directors did. Now, those administrators must deal with the consequences, and one is people are more willing than ever to pay for the autographs of the players they see on television every Saturday. The players are going to sign. The money is too easy and the likelihood of negative consequences too small to stop them. So, the administrators must come up with a system that works for everyone. The reason the autograph rule exists is so a booster can’t give a star quarterback recruit $50,000 dollars ostensibly for an autograph, but really so the player chooses the booster’s school. The schools don’t want a truly open market for players, even if the courts may eventually force one upon them.
Still, schools could probably handle autographs without flinging open the doors. They could set up their own autograph market. They already have e-commerce platforms to sell tickets and jerseys. This would simply be more inventory. They would cut out the third parties and could split the profits with the players by placing the money in trust until the players exhaust their eligibility. Or they could just give the players the money immediately. Would some players get more than others? Of course. Some players get more playing time than others, too. The dollar figures wouldn’t be outrageous, but they aren’t outrageous in the underground market considering how much money is in the college football system. This would allow the players the ability to trade on their own names, and it might help the schools as they fight for their rules in court.
Implementing such a system would require time, which Gurley lacks because eligibility is finite, and imagination, which most college sports administrators have proven they lack unless negotiating a media-rights deal that will put money in their pockets. Until then, Gurley will have to sit his four games. Georgia must keep playing without its best player.
And the only real winners will be the folks who made the "Free Gurley" T-shirts. You can get one today for the low, low price of $25.52. And don’t worry, NCAA. Gurley won’t see a penny.