An ongoing debate: Should Trevor Lawrence benefit from sales of his jersey?

Credit: Matt Gentry

Credit: Matt Gentry

This is Trevor Lawrence Country in Cartersville, a mostly conservative bastion in Bartow County. Generally, people there do not like government intervention and are staunchly behind capitalism and individual rights. They also are traditionalists when it comes to football.

It figures then that some folks here - capitalists and traditionalists wound together - are as conflicted as Lawrence himself in the national debate over whether college athletes should get a bigger share of a $14 billion college sports industry.

As the debate approaches a tipping point in January, here is what Lawrence, the star quarterback for No. 2 Clemson and likely the No. 1 pick in next spring’s NFL draft, had to say via Zoom from Clemson last week:

“It’s one of those situations where college football is special how it is and with change obviously, it can affect that, so there’s a little bit of danger, I think in that. But also I see as being a player and experiencing it, I see what a lot of guys are talking about as far as compensation and all that. It’s a tough thing to balance off, but I definitely see both sides.”

His people are torn, too. In a random survey of 15 Cartersville fans at a Friday night state semifinal football game against Coffee High, nine said their guy Trevor should get paid a slice of all these holiday jersey sales. Six said no, and emphasized that athletes should not be professionalized in college.

“He should be allowed to monetize himself,” said Randy Parker, a local photographer. “Who is hurt if he is allowed to do that? I’m a capitalist.”

“No,” said Neal Miller, who works in apparel and played football at Cartersville and graduated from the high school in 1970, when asked if college athletes should make money. “That’s why I like high school football. Nobody gets paid for it.”

What’s certain is that college athletics is going to be transformed in 2021. Just in the last week, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case on athletes’ rights to compensation, and two U.S. Senators have said they will propose federal legislation giving more earning power to athletes. The NCAA, the governing body of college athletics, will propose some changes to its bylaws in January to allow college athletes to earn side money, but many claim it is only window dressing designed to take off public pressure.

Lawrence, a junior, likely will be on his way to the NFL and won’t be affected by the debate that swirls around college superstars, like himself.

The sporting goods store in Cartersville, Academy Sports and Outdoors, does not sell Lawrence’s No. 16 jersey off the rack, but you can buy it on the company’s web site. The Dick’s Sporting Goods store in Anderson, S.C., closer to the Clemson campus, had a rack of Trevor jerseys at the front of the door a few weeks ago. Now, there is one remaining, a kids’ medium, a store clerk said by phone. The Dick’s in Greenville, S.C., had only two Lawrence jerseys remaining, according to a store clerk last week.

Rick Karcher, a professor at Eastern Michigan who is an attorney and a national expert on sports law, is not conflicted about athletes’ getting a share of the jersey sales and a share of the college sports bonanza overall. He said Lawrence and other college athletes should sue apparel makers immediately for infringement of their publicity rights. When he did a search on the site “Etsy”, an apparel site, and saw the number of Lawrence jerseys on sale, Karcher said, “Unreal!”

“This has to do with theft,” Karcher said. “Athletes don’t need a NIL (Name, Image, Likeness) law in order to sue someone who makes and/or sells a product without the athlete’s permission and to be paid in a settlement.”

Karcher said schools have an obligation under NCAA bylaws to stop third-party sites from infringing on Lawrence’s publicity rights. EA Sports and the NCAA were forced in 2014 to stop using athletes to promote EA video games. The courts ruled the NCAA and EA violated the college athlete’s right of publicity, and there was a settlement of $60 million.

The jerseys being sold online with No. 16 in Clemson orange and white do not have to have Lawrence’s name on the back to be an infringement.

Five states have passed laws giving college athletes rights to their name, image, and likeness. The state of Florida’s bill goes into affect July 1, 2021, and many see schools such as Florida, Florida State and Miami having a recruiting advantage if the Florida schools have broader athlete marketing rights.

Georgia state representative Billy Mitchell (D-Stone Mountain) introduced a bill in 2019 granting college athletes marketing rights, but it failed to advance in the state legislature in June 2020. That might not matter anyway. Bills in U.S. Congress would preempt state laws. A bill proposed by Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), a former Stanford football player, shows more protections for college athletes than a bill proposed by Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), so like a lot of things, the Jan. 5 runoff in Georgia and control of the Senate matters to college athletes.

Wicker’s bill allows universities to prevent athlete deals that conflict with the university’s endorsement deal. In 2018, The Greenville News reported Clemson had extended its contract for Nike to the 2027-28 school year. The deal calls for $58 million in “apparel allowances, direct cash payouts and royalties.” Clemson receives a 14 percent royalty rate for merchandise from Nike.

Karcher said Lawrence should be able to make his own deal with Nike-rival Adidas, even if the school has a deal with Nike. “There is no conflict if Trevor has a deal with Adidas and Clemson has a deal with Nike,” Karcher said.

Karcher also said Clemson’s deal with Nike does not give Nike the right to infringe on the athlete’s publicity rights.

“Nike, Fanatics, Dick’s, and anyone else that sells, or profits from the sale of, the jersey can be sued today for a right of publicity violation, and the player can be paid in a settlement,” Karcher said. “Nike sells Trevor’s identity in a jersey to Dick’s, and then Dick’s sells it to the public. It doesn’t matter what Nike’s deal is with Clemson.”

Lawrence is not the only athlete with a case. Vanderbilt kicker Sarah Fuller, the first woman to score a point in a Power 5 college football game, has had her name spread throughout the internet on apparel from jerseys to T-shirts since her two made extra points Dec. 12. Sites such as Etsy and Redbubble are selling a T-shirt with her name in black-and-gold Vandy colors.

The NCAA has said it will bend on athletes making money from their name, image, and likeness, but the governing body of college athletics wants restrictions on athletes’ earning power. Karcher insists there should be no restrictions. If boosters want to pay athletes, they should be able to pay athletes. If a car dealer wants to pay a player to endorse a car that is fine, too.

“There is nothing inherently wrong with boosters paying an athlete whatever amount they want as long as the transaction is transparent, that’s market rate,” said Karcher, who was drafted by the Braves and played three years in their farm system. “Boosters are paying for coaches’ salaries and buyouts, amazing workout facilities, waterfalls in the athletic building, Dabo’s luxury apartment, etc.”

Lawrence and his teammates get stipends of a few thousand dollars during the school year to help with minor expenses. Players drive cars with 300,000 miles on the odometer. They want to send money home to families who supported their ambition to play college sports.

“I think there’s definitely going to be some things in the future, just you can see the way things are trending,” Lawrence said. “I think some things will change.”