Either you comprehend the value of an autograph, or you don’t: There are those of us who honestly couldn’t give less of a shit about having a famous person’s indecipherable signature affixed to an item of otherwise dubious value, and there are those who clamor for such garage-sale memorabilia by bidding against each other on eBay.
If you’re in the latter, group, well, hey, it’s your life. But also know that you’re among those who have established a robust market for such things, so much so that autograph brokers and memorabilia dealers make their living trafficking in these goods. I could be wrong, but I get the sense this is not always the most ethical of professions. This is especially true when those autographs are considered “illicit,” as is the case with college athletes, who are technically amateurs, even when they don’t really seem like amateurs at all, especially when they are helping to generate millions of dollars for institutions of higher learning.
On Thursday, we learned that Georgia running back Todd Gurley, a prolific talent who appeared to be a favorite to win the Heisman Trophy, was suspended indefinitely. He was benched, the university announced, due to an ongoing investigation; said investigation, as best as we can tell, had to do with Gurley signing copious amounts of autographs, perhaps even for compensation. And if this flips your lid, well, you’re probably still getting over the fact that there was wagering at Rick’s place.
I don’t need to point out the hypocrisy here, because people far more intelligent than me, like attorney and college basketball analyst Jay Bilas, have been doing it for years. The notion that a college athlete cannot profit on his name and likeness is an antiquated one, and should be one of the first rules that the major college athletic conferences take a poleaxe to as they work on reform.
We can argue whether college athletes deserve additional compensation, and we can argue about the potential framework of a system that: A) Treats athletes fairly, B) Doesn’t further corrupt a system that has long encouraged rule-breaking and C) Somehow preserves the ideals of college athletics, whatever you feel those ideals might be. But if Georgia is selling jerseys with Todd Gurley’s number on them – jerseys that are being marketed so that fans can capture Gurley’s likeness for themselves as they gnaw on turkey legs at tailgates – then there is no reason Gurley shouldn’t share in that profit. And you can argue that even an idiotic rule is still a rule, but how do we go about changing that rule if it has stood for the better part of 150 years, despite ongoing protestations?
In this case, I’m not sure there’s a better way to call attention to the stupidity than to have the rule be broken by some of college athletics’ highest-profile actors. A year ago, Johnny Manziel (allegedly) did the same thing Gurley’s being accused of, then hired a lawyer and fought the NCAA down to a half-game suspension in a meaningless early-season game. I don’t know if Gurley will gain the same result, given that his offense was uncovered early in the season, and given that Gurley now has to apply for reinstatement to the NCAA, an organization whose disciplinary structure makes the NFL seem as organized as West Point by comparison.
It would be nice if the NCAA and its member schools would choose this moment to scrap this autograph prohibition altogether (or at least establish some reasonable parameters), but that’s not how these things happen. Instead, Todd Gurley will pay some kind of price, and Todd Gurley will most likely lose out on any chance at the Heisman Trophy for breaking a rule that shouldn’t be a rule in the first place. In an ideal world, Gurley’s autograph would be his to sell, but clearly, we don’t live in that world yet. But maybe, because he got caught, it’ll happen sooner rather than later.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb