The Conner Law Group’s managing partner, Mike Conner, is the Southern Pigskin Radio Network’s legal expert. He offers his perspective on the recent developments in the ongoing saga of Texas A&M quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel and the possible ramifications for interfering with the contracts of amateur and professional athletes:
Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel is suspended for the first half of the Aggies’ opening game against Rice game this weekend, and his suspension apparently arises out of a brewing potential scandal involving his alleged receipt of money for signing autographs and his negligence in preventing his autographs from being sold for a profit.
An autograph or sports memorabilia broker, Drew Tieman, allegedly paid Manziel for his autographs. In addition to the ramifications for Manziel and the potential loss of his amateur status, questions are beginning to be raised about the potential liability of the autograph broker. In Texas, there is a law, originally passed in 1987 following scandals at Southern Methodist University which resulted in the termination of the football program, that permits a college to sue f
or interference with a college athlete’s amateur status by violating NCAA rules. The law says that a university can sue a person, such an autograph broker, who breaks an NCAA rule related to a college athlete for money damages that are caused by the violation. First, the school would have to show that the violator, the defendant, knew about the rule when he or she violated it, and second, that the violation resulted in the NCAA taking enforcement action against the athlete, such as, for example, suspension. After these requirements are met, the school can sue for lost revenue, which could come in the form of lost ticket sales, money lost from games not being televised that otherwise may have been televised, lost income from postseason considerations and other forms of revenue.
The potential application of the Texas law to the Manziel situation highlights the growing attention to persons, like autograph brokers or sports agents. In fact, the NCAA currently claims that at least 40 states have passed the Uniform Athlete Agents Act. The act is a model state law that seeks to regulate sports agents and other similar persons, such as perhaps auto
graph brokers. Under the Act, a sports agent must register with the State where he or she does business, and the Act requires the agent to immediately notify a school or college if they enter into an agreement of representation with an athlete. The ath
lete has 14 days within which to terminate any such agreement, and schools have the right to sue agents who violate the law under the Act. The Johnny Manziel situation could be the first case where a university actually does take such legal action. Some states, like Georgia, have even abandoned their sports agent regulatory bodies, consolidating them with other state agencies.
The lines between college and professional athletics continue to blur. The Johnny Manziel situation at its core ap
plies the underlying concept of tort law referring to interference with business relations or legal contracts. Major League Baseball used this theory in the performance-enhancing drug scandal when it sued Biogenesis and its founder under this theory, and that suit resulted in Biogenesis’ cooperation with MLB and the current suspensions of professional baseball players like Ryan Braun. Baseball sued for billions of dollars, alleging that Biogenesis interfered with players’ contracts by causing those players to take banned substances, and as part of a settlement of that case, Biogenesis turned over allegedly incriminating documents as to those players.
To date, no school or college has attempted enforcement of the Act, and no lawsuits have been filed. But if the current environment in college athletics continues in the direction we have seen in recent years, we may not have to wait much longer.