Leaf Trading Cards caused a national stir on Wednesday when it announced it was including cards of Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel as part of its redemption program for 2013 Leaf Metal and Valiant issues.
Not only do the cards feature artwork of Manziel, the company has attached cut signatures to each. Some collectors may be happy but Manziel, his representatives, his school and the NCAA are not likely to be quite as pleased.
No college athlete is supposed to benefit from his or her name or likeness being used to sell a product and the Heisman Trophy winning quarterback from Texas A&M says he didn’t authorize the cards and didn’t know his autographs would be used in a trading card product.
Leaf called the Manziel signed cards “the most exciting football cards in years”. “This card features original 1/1 art work hand drawn/painted by the artist and an authentic cut signature,” wrote Leaf President Brian Gray on the company’s website after making the announcement. “Each signature has been authenticated by PSA/DNA, and each card includes an authentication sticker on back. In addition, each card is slabbed by Beckett Grading Services for its protection.”
However, it’s clear the company expected a firestorm, which they got once the story was reported by ESPN.
“Leaf wishes to clarify that neither the cards, the use of the signatures included in the cards, nor the artwork, is sanctioned or endorsed by the personality, his university, or any other organization or licensing body. The artwork is an original creation protected by the First Amendment. The cut signatures were obtained by Leaf from third parties. Neither Leaf nor its employees have met with, spoken to, or had any contact with the personality. The depictions on the cards are derived from unique artwork created by an artist under contract to Leaf. The cards represent the artist’s impressions of Johnny Manziel, which Leaf understands to be protected by the First Amendment.”
It could prove to be an interesting battle. Leaf ruffled the feathers of Andrew Luck’s agents when they included a high school All-American game photo in boxes of its 2012 draft pick products. Leaf claimed there were no licensing issues with the card and filed a declaratory judgment. The issue quietly went away last June.
The fact that the First Amendment was mentioned twice in company literature this time means Gray again believes he’s within its rights to offer the cards and is confident he’ll win any legal challenge. Artwork has generally been protected as freedom of expression.
How Leaf obtained numerous Manziel autographs isn’t known but that part of the equation may put sports collectors in a less than positive light. Manziel’s autographs sell on eBay and he’s often the target of dealers looking to turn a profit. He even decided to enroll in online classes at Texas A&M because of the attention he was getting from students and others seeking photos and autographs on campus.