Chris Spielman was working as a broadcaster at one of his favorite places on earth, Ohio Stadium, athletic and social and spiritual epicenter of his alma mater, the Ohio State University, when he received a text message from a friend. Attached was a photo of a poster. There was Spielman, wearing his old No. 36 in the scarlet and gray, bent at the knees looking for someone to hit, his last name scrawled down the right side of the frame. And there, underneath the poster that hung beneath the stands at the stadium, was one word: “Honda.”
“I said, ‘Hmmmm,’” Spielman said. “I don’t recall signing anything or talking to anybody about this. It’s my picture, my name — with a giant logo.”
And so here we are, with Spielman — who embodies Ohio State, who loves Ohio State — suing Ohio State.
It is surprising on the face of it. “I’m humbled and honored when Ohio State uses my image,” Spielman said Monday in a telephone interview.
But look from Spielman’s vantage, and there are so many elements that are wholly predictable, because college sports don’t just chew up and spit out the athletes, they go back and pick over the bones even decades later.
Put plainly, Ohio State wanted to use memories conjured up by Spielman’s image — and those of other former Buckeyes, displayed throughout the stadium — to make money. It did not want to share that money with the people who put the university in position to partner with not only Honda, but other corporate partners — Nike and IMG — also named in the suit.
Hey, Buckeye fans, remember this guy, this all-American linebacker who played from 1984 to 1987, winner of the Lombardi Award as the nation’s best linebacker or lineman? Makes you warm inside, doesn’t it? Can I show you to an Accord?
(Further complication: Because Spielman can trade off his own image, he has a 20-year relationship with a Columbus car dealer that sells Mazdas and Subarus. That made for an awkward phone call, given the Honda banner and all.)
It just seems silly. But it’s also important. Important for the Buckeyes who would benefit should Spielman win. And important going forward for college athletes across the country, current and former.
In the 35-page class action complaint filed Friday in federal court, Spielman’s attorney, Brian Duncan, writes that by cutting out Spielman and other former Buckeyes, Ohio State, IMG, Nike and Honda “have unreasonably and illegally restrained trade in order to commercially exploit former OSU student-athletes previously subject to its control, with such exploitation affecting those individuals well into their post-collegiate lives.”
The defendants’ action, in using the image of Spielman and others, “wipes out in total the future ownership interests of former student-athletes in their own images — rights that all other members of society enjoy.”
Imagine that: A big-time, big-bucks athletic department taking advantage of a former football player. Stunning.
“I think I deserve a courtesy call: ‘Do you want to be a part of this program that we’re doing with Honda?’” Spielman said. “I was never given this right. I think it’s a basic human right to control your name and image.”
But these are college sports, Chris. Basic human rights maybe — maybe — were part of the equation when schools played on 11 consecutive Saturdays, always kicking off at 1 p.m., and the players had the rest of their weekends free to pursue studies or parties or both. But we’re at the point in the NCAA’s development (if that’s what we want to call it) when games are played at whatever hour would generate the most money — for everyone but the people playing them.
This isn’t even an NCAA eligibility issue. To be clear, if it were, it’d still be silly, because athletic departments with Ohio State’s resources — the Buckeyes generated $170 million in the 2015-16 academic year — should be able to pay athletes more than a nominal fee for their service and sacrifice in the name of generating more revenue. Revenue for other people.
But this isn’t about current “student-athletes,” who receive allegedly sufficient compensation in the form of scholarships. This is about former student-athletes. And Ohio State won’t budge?
“This has been going on for eight months,” Spielman said.
Duncan and Spielman said they reached out to Ohio State in hopes of establishing a program in which the former athletes — whose pictures are littered around Ohio Stadium – might share in the profits that the corporate partnerships generate.
“Ohio State is a leader in so many areas,” Spielman said. “I think Ohio State can be in the lead on this.”
In the past, Spielman has partnered with his alma mater on bobbleheads that looked like him. Doesn’t that make sense, working with former athletes — who generated revenue for the university — to help generate some more money, some of which they might even get to pocket?
“The players win,” Spielman said. “Ohio State wins. The sponsor wins.”
The university did not respond to a request to comment Monday. Gene Smith, OSU’s athletic director, issued only a statement saying the school is aware of the suit and is reviewing it. Smith’s statement, in part: “We immensely value our relationships with all our former student-athletes.”
Really? Immensely value?
Here’s how you show that you immensely value your former student-athletes. When you’re setting up a relationship with a company that will drive money into the athletic department’s coffers, you get the images you want to use, and you call each and every former athlete and ask two things: Can we use this photo? Would you like a piece of the profit? Moreover, we acknowledge that we couldn’t pay you then, so we’re going to pay you a little now.
“I was sick about doing this,” Spielman said. And yet, in the couple of days since the suit was filed, he has heard from all sorts of former Buckeyes.
“Nothing but support,” Spielman said. “They know that we’re doing the right thing. I’m trying to help guys that maybe don’t have a platform that I may have. Everybody can win here. That’s what I want.”
But this is college athletics, Chris. And in college athletics, the athletes have the hardest time winning — while they’re playing, or a generation later.