Gurley’s woes spotlight murky industry

A framed jersey signed by New England Patriots star Tom Brady can be purchased online for around $1,300. A framed jersey signed by the University of Georgia’s Todd Gurley also can be purchased online, although the cost is significantly less.

Sports memorabilia is big business, and there’s nothing to stop dealers from selling anything signed by sports figures. For college athletes, there are wider implications now being felt by Bulldogs fans.

Gurley’s suspension has opened another window into a murky world where jerseys, helmets and other items signed by college athletes can bring thousands of dollars, yet none can legally go to the signers themselves.

That’s because NCAA rules say the athletes are amateurs, restricted largely to scholarships. The rules have increasingly ensnared college players tempted by the cash.

“You don’t need to know a lot about the memorabilia industry to know what can happen,” said John Infante, a former compliance officer at two NCAA schools. Selling memorabilia means making it available to the public, and that automatically calls attention to the athlete whose signature is on it, he said.

ESPN reported Friday that a Villa Rica memorabilia dealer sent an email to the network and other media outlets last month claiming to possess a video of Gurley doing a private autograph signing. The dealer, Bryan Allen, wrote that Gurley had been paid thousands of dollars over the previous 18 months.

“I personally paid him for the signing on the video,” Allen wrote ESPN. A photo attached to the email showed a man resembling Gurley signing a mini UGA helmet inside a car, ESPN reported.

Allen’s attorney, Ed Garland, did not respond to a phone message from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution seeking comment.

Easy to sell online

Entrepreneur magazine says it takes between $2,000 and $10,000 to start a sports memorabilia store, a cost that can be held down by running the business from home. The business is increasingly moving online, where capital costs are closer to zero.

Customers come from all over the spectrum, many buying presents for birthdays, holidays and other occasions. The items come from a range of directions, owners say: people who go to games specifically to score autographs they can sell, people who need cash to pay bills, people trying to clear the home of a departed spouse’s possessions.

“We are like the pawn shop for sports,” said Rick Paul, owner of On Deck Sportscards & Collectibles in Lawrenceville.

Testifying to that interest, the owner of one metro Atlanta memorabilia business asked that the AJC not quote him by name because he had received threatening calls from UGA fans this week.

Sometimes an athlete tries to skirt the ban directly. Sometimes he takes money to sign memorabilia for someone else who, in turn, sells those items.

“Do we get approached by people with stuff like this? Yes. It happens,” said Michael Hughes, owner of Radtke Sports in Buford. His merchandise does not include signed items from current college players. “Kids don’t understand.”

“Todd Gurley has just limited his own value,” he added. “If he had won the Heisman Trophy, he’d be signing autographs and making money for the rest of his life.”

More than 200 jerseys signed by Gurley were authenticated by a company well-known in that field, and at least two were sold online by a Phoenix auction company, the AJC found.

Jordan Baker of Pristine Auction said one of the jerseys sold for $90.56 and the other for $49.51. She said the items were sold on consignment, and the consigner, whom she declined to identify, received 70 percent of the sales price.

Jimmy Spence, the owner of JSA Authentication, said his company authenticated the jerseys at its Florida office, matching the signatures to one for Gurley in the firm’s data base.

Spence said his employees sometimes witnesses signings, but that wasn’t the case with Gurley. Spence said he didn’t know who wanted the items authenticated.

“Everything matched up perfectly,” he said. “How the submitter got them is another story.”

Spence said his company “frowns” on witnessing college athletes signing memorabilia because of what it could mean for their eligibility. Still, when people submit items and pay to have them authenticated, his company will provide the service.

“We don’t discriminate on who we authenticate,” Spence said. “We authenticated O.J. (Simpson) before the double murder. We authenticated him after the double murder.”

Difficult issue to control

Memorabilia dealers have only recently turned up on the radar for those who police college sports, said Infante, a former rules compliance officer at Colorado State and Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles. Where it was once enough to keep an eye out for sports agents, financial planners and others seeking to gain influence with college athletes, it’s now necessary to look for those seeking to make a quicker score through a few signed items sold to rabid fans, he said.

Getting a handle on the issue is difficult because, even when there’s evidence of impropriety, there’s nothing to compel memorabilia dealers to disclose their dealings with athletes to the schools or the NCAA.

Case in point point is that of 2012 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel.

Although an autograph dealer said last year he paid the Manziel $7,500 to sign _ and there was evidence the Texas A&M star had signed hundreds of items _ neither the dealer nor others involved would talk to the NCAA. Manziel ultimately was required to sit out only the first half of the Aggies’ first game.

Because college programs rake in millions while the athletes are largely restricted to scholarships, there is little public outrage when athletes cash in by signing a few jerseys.

That fact was underscored in July when a federal judge ruled that the NCAA unfairly restricts college athletes from earning money based on their names and likenesses. The NCAA is appealing the decision.

“As people know more about the business of college athletics, they see the jerseys being auctioned off by the schools themselves,” Infante said. “If people are going to make noise, it’s directed at the rule and not the athletes.”