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Hot Pot: Lacrosse Companies & NCAA Eligibility Violations

I keep my eyes on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram because so much information is transmitted through social media. With that information also comes a heavy dose of marketing, and many of the lacrosse companies out there (both big and small) have taken full advantage of this opportunity.

The bigger companies almost exclusively put up photos of their gear, some of which D1 teams use, and many smaller companies have followed suit. Others have taken a different approach, and in my opinion, it’s bordering on an NCAA eligibility violation for current college players. The vast majority of the larger companies, including STX, Cascade, Warrior, Maverik, Brine, Under Armour, Trilogy, and a host of others stay far away from this type of advertising, and for good reason.

When I was in college in the early 2000s, my school (an NCAA D3 school by the way) made sure that all the athletes were aware of the risks of showing up in advertisements. We were told we couldn’t be in ads (even if the ads had never received our permission), we couldn’t receive free products, and that our likeness could not be used in any promotional materials… so have the rules somehow changed in the last decade?

No, they haven’t. Since 2003 the relevant rules have been amended only once, and the change was pretty minor.

Want to read the rule? Here are two pertinent ones (full text can be found here):

NCAA Bylaw Advertisements and Promotions After Becoming a Student-Athlete

After becoming a student-athlete, an individual shall not be eligible for participation in intercollegiate athletics if the individual: (a) Accepts any remuneration for or permits the use of his or her name or picture to advertise, recommend or promote directly the sale or use of a commercial product or service of any kind; or (b) Receives remuneration for endorsing a commercial product or service through the individual’s use of such product or service.

NCAA Bylaw Use of a Student-Athlete’s Name or Picture without Knowledge or Permission.

If a student-athlete’s name or picture appears on commercial items (e.g., T-shirts, sweatshirts, serving trays, playing cards, posters) or is used to promote a commercial product sold by an individual or agency without the student-athlete’s knowledge or permission, the student-athlete (or the institution acting on behalf of the student-athlete) is required to take steps to stop such an activity in order to retain his or her eligibility for intercollegiate athletics. Such steps are not required in cases in which a student-athlete’s photograph is sold by an individual or agency (e.g., private photographer, news agency) for private use. (Revised: 1/11/97, 5/12/05)

(The most recent case to involve this rule that made national headlines was when Johnny Manziel was suspended for 30 minutes of game time for an autograph issue.)

Keeping the above in mind, how is it somehow ok to put up a photo of a current college player and to say college player X (and possibly his whole team) use product A? How is it ok to put up a photo of a current college player and say he played for your travel, training, or elite team? How can you say current college All American Bob Lawlaw is going to be a coach at your camp this Summer? How can you say that current college Player X uses or used your product or service and not be in direct violation of the above rule?

Let’s pretend it’s 2012, and Rob Pannell is still in college. LAS gets all excited after watching RP3 tear it up, and we throw this onto our Facebook account, after signing a deal with Cornell Lacrosse:

Screen Shot 2014-03-10 at 1.35.02 PM

We didn’t say Rob Pannell reads LAS. We said Cornell. But there is an implied correlation there, isn’t there? If Rob plays for Cornell, and Cornell reads LAS, Rob reads LAS. His photo is there, his name is there, and our product name is there. If we were to say “Rob Pannell of Cornell reads LAS” that would be more obvious, but really it’s the same thing. We would be equating a current college player as one of our consumers. We would be using him to advertise our product. In my eyes, both approaches are NCAA violations. (Yes, we chose RP3 because he has already graduated.) The same applies to a travel team saying Rob played for them and is now at Cornell. If they say he got to Cornell because he played for their travel team, it is, again, a more obvious violation. “Rob Pannell is at our camp this Summer. Sign up!” That would be using Rob to sell your camp service.

Now, if a company puts up a photo of Rob Pannell and just says he had a monster day, and makes no connection to their brand, that seems a lot closer to being ok. It’s celebrating the player purely, and not used in marketing. Of course the same company could put up a photo two seconds later that says “Cornell uses our product” and not show Pannell at all, and still make the advertising connection. This approach seems safer, but to me it’s still a little murky. I just wouldn’t want to walk that fine line personally.

And it doesn’t matter if it’s just on Instagram, or on a promotional poster at the Final Four. “T-shirts, sweatshirts, serving trays, playing cards, posters” are considered to be the same as something that is “used to promote a commercial product sold by an individual or agency.” You want to get recruited? You want new mesh? You want a sweet dye? That means photos on Facebook, mentions on Twitter, Instagram photos and descriptions… it’s all used to sell products and services, so it’s all fair game for an NCAA violation.

If smaller companies want to use the university programs to promote their product, they can. They can put up photos of gear, the campus, the logo, the stadium, the coach, the whatever… as long as it’s not a player. Using a player, in any sense, seems like a pretty clear violation to me.

All of the above being said, I don’t think the NCAA is going to throw a lot of money into investigating college lacrosse eligibility as it relates to this issue. It just doesn’t seem at all realistic. But if they do, do we really want lacrosse companies to be the reason that tens or possibly up to one hundred D1, D2, and D3 players are now ineligible? Personally, I would find that horrific, especially when good kids, who have done nothing wrong, could lose their eligibility.

To all the players out there… (RE-READ the SECOND RULE!) if you see a company using an image of you in a promotional way, contact the company directly and demand that they take down the photo immediately. They might not, but if the NCAA ever comes knocking, at least you can say you made the effort, and that seems to be the crux of the rule.

Using college athletes to sell product is an NCAA violation. Certain companies may think that they have skirted the rules, and for now they might have… but if it all goes sour, these small companies will lose all the respect they’ve gained overnight.

Is it likely that any of this will happen? If Johnny Manziel only sits for 30 minutes, a lacrosse disaster of ineligibility seems incredibly unlikely. However, because of the way the rules are written, it still could happen, and it would be a shame if it did. You have all been warned!