Former Buckeye and NFL All-Pro Linebacker Chris Spielman Tackles Alma Mater Ohio State in Recent Lawsuit

July 26, 2017

March Madness may bring office productivity to a standstill, but its big business for the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). The NCAA generates more than $1 billion a year in advertising revenue from the three week event. (“Business Insider, The NCAA Tournament is an enormous cash cow as revenue keeps skyrocketing,” March 17, 2017)

Yet, the money involved in college basketball pales in comparison to that of NCAA football.  The Big Ten, which actually includes fourteen schools, recently signed a $2.6 billion dollar television deal, with each individual college set to receive $43 to 54 million per year over the life of the contract. Urban Meyer, the head pigskin coach at Ohio State University, makes six million annually, even before other incentives are factored in. (Awful Announcing: The Big Ten’s new TV deal puts it into the lead, may provide a competitive edge,” January 15, 2017)

While the NCAA, athletic conferences, schools, and coaches have enriched themselves as revenues skyrocket, one contingent has not. The players, who the NCAA loves to refer as amateur student-athletes who play only for the love of the game. While few would discount the value of a scholarship to an elite university or playing in front of adoring hordes of fans, there is a growing chorus of voices who think that’s not enough. One of them is former National Football League All-Pro linebacker Chris Spielman. Earlier this month, he filed a class action complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio against his alma mater, Ohio State, and IMG, a global behemoth in sports and entertainment management.  The complaint also lists NIKE and Honda as co-conspirators.

The lawsuit arises out of Ohio State University displaying large banners with images of notable ex-players such as Spielman and coaching staff throughout its nearly 105,000 seat stadium, popularly known to college football fans as the Horseshoe. The images were used as part of an advertising campaign with Honda. None of the 64 former players and coaches depicted provided permission or received compensation.

Spielman, on behalf of others similarly situated in the class, which includes current athletes, is seeking compensation for the unauthorized use of their likenesses, claiming that Ohio State and its partners were unjustly enriched while conspiring together to keep players and former coaches from enjoying the financial spoils they helped create. Among other allegations, he contends that the defendants violated provisions of the federal Sherman and Lanham Acts as well as Ohio’s Deceptive Trade Practices Act and right to publicity. The complaint asserts:

While OSU and its for-profit business partners reap millions of dollars from revenue streams including television contracts, rebroadcasts of “classic” games, DVD game and highlight film sales and rentals, “stock footage” sales to corporate advertisers and others, photograph sales, and jersey and other apparel sales, former student-athletes in the Class whose likenesses are utilized to generate those profit-centers receive no compensation whatsoever…The related available content featuring likeness of former student-athletes in the Class, such as DVDs, photos, and banners, and merchandise, continues to grow in both availability and popularity, and the growth will continue to explode as merchandise continues to be made available in new delivery formats as developing technology and ingenuity permits, as exemplified by the substantial library of “on demand” internet content now available for sale for OSU games as well as jerseys on OSU’s website. Charles C. SPIELMAN aka Chris Spielman, Individually (and/or as an Officer, Shareholder and/or Affiliate of Profectus Group, Inc., d/b/a The College Football Players Club) on behalf of Himself and All Others Similarly Situated, Plaintiffs, v. IMG COLLEGE, LLC, (IMG Worldwide, Inc., WME Entertainment (“WME”), dba IMG, dba International Management Group dba Ohio State IMG Sports Marketing) (Collectively Referred to as “IMG”); and The Ohio State University (aka “OSU”), John Does 1-10, ABC Company’s 1-10, Defendants., 2017 WL 3015658 (S.D.Ohio)

It will be interesting to see how this lawsuit turns out on the heels of the 2015 O’Bannon v NCAA decision. That lawsuit effectively led to the end of the beloved EA Sports NCAA Football franchise on the Xbox and Playstation video game platforms, but did little to settle to what extent current and former players deserve to be compensated for their contributions to the multi-billion dollar college sports industrial complex.

The complaint can be read in full at: 2017 WL 3015658

Photo credit: Mike Blake/Reuters

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