So what has former All-Pro linebacker Chris Spielman so fired up that he has sued his alma mater?
Back in the 1980s many people will remember Chris Spielman as an all-American linebacker at Ohio State. He was the 29th overall draft pick in the 1988 NFL Draft and went on to star in that league – earning four Pro Bowls. He followed up a solid playing career and a TV analyst on college football broadcasts. So it would be hard to believe that Spielman is actually hurting for cash. In fact probably the contrary – he probably cares less about the cash.
Spielman is actually contesting Ohio State’s use of his likeness and image- his name and pictures of him -from his days at Ohio State. It’s not that he protests Ohio State’s using his picture, it’s not like they haven’t been doing so since he graced the field in the “Horseshoe.” What set this usage of part is that Ohio State adorned Ohio Stadium with flags of 64 memorable Buckeyes over the years presented by sponsor Honda. It is the grouping of his picture together with the corporate sponsor that have riled up Spielman and many other college athletes as well.
As part of NCAA participation forms, athletes essentially waive their rights to compensation and grant their schools the right to use their name, image, and likeness in relation to competition and broadcasts. In fact, one can argue these rights are actually necessary in order for universities to be able to broadcast games since they need the permission of the players to showcase them on television. So while the issue of whether college athletes should be compensated for appearing on TV is an issue on its own, Spielman’s lawsuit against Ohio State brings up another abuse in college sports. In granting the rights to University, most athletes, or prospective student athletes, do not envision that those rights will one day be sold to someone else or that they would grace advertisements for companies. After all, companies pay actors and models to appear in advertisements. So why should the fact that a football player played at Ohio State over 30 years ago absolve that sponsor of having to pay an individual to gain the benefit of their endorsement in an advertisement today?
In legal terms, this is something known as the “right of publicity.” The right of publicity is a common law construct that supports an individual’s right to be able to profit from their own name, likeness, or image. Image if you were a celebrity and someone used your credibility to hock their own product. That is the difference here versus just having a TMZ photographer snapped an unflattering photo of that same celebrity. The right of publicity gives an individual an the right to challenge commercial exploitation and allow that individual to at least share in the profits that are generated from that usage.
While Spielman has criticized the NCAA and Ohio State in the past for questionable usage, this lawsuit takes it to another level. There are numerous lawsuits around the country where current and former college athletes are suing the NCAA and universities for misappropriation of their rights of publicity. Spielman’s contention is that while he would not be opposed to Ohio State’s use of his image and name in promoting the Buckeyes or their football history, he does feel that there is a difference when that usage, in part, exists to promote Honda. He contends that if Honda wanted to use him in an advertising campaign in the Columbus, Ohio market, he would have been entitled to compensation. So does the fact that Ohio State is selling his image and connection without his approval make the situation any different?
The rights of publicity is a huge issue in college sports today. As the cost of sports increases as well as the profit potential, the NCAA and its schools are constantly looking for new ways to add revenue and bring in sponsors. The incredible catalog of pictures, video, and other assets featuring a schools roster of sports celebrities becomes an attractive, if not controversial, opportunity. For Honda, the opportunity to associate with 64 of the biggest Buckeye football players of all time is something of significant value to them or else they wouldn’t have done it. So the only question is should some of that value belong to the individuals pictured in those images? Spielman says “yes.”