Over the past year, as he went from unknown to Heisman Trophy winner to one of the biggest figures in sports, Johnny Manziel embodied the modern athlete better than anyone in one respect: cultivating an image.
He was Johnny Football, full of swagger and improvisation and don't-give-a-damn, and even as the walls of fame caved in on him, it was the thing he protected more fiercely than anything. This was him. America would consume him as he saw fit. They could take his privacy, but they couldn't take away who he is.
Such is the irony of the latest news in Manziel's circuitous career as quarterback at Texas A&M: It's his image, literally, that may be his downfall. It's his likeness being turned on him because of what he chose to sign, perhaps for money.
"A picture," Desmond Howard said. "A picture of himself."
Twenty-two years ago, Howard won the Heisman Trophy while a senior at Michigan. He did so by promoting and cementing his own image by striking the Heisman pose following an electrifying touchdown, a moment captured with one snapshot that stands among the most iconic pictures in college football history.
Like the signed pictures of Manziel that may have run afoul of NCAA rules and has prompted an investigation, Howard too is embroiled in a dispute over a picture of him – a picture that has cost him tens of thousands of dollars defending a lawsuit against him and has led him to the brink of action.
Howard told Yahoo! Sports he is considering attaching his name to the O'Bannon v. NCAA lawsuit that is challenging long-held NCAA business practice.
"I'm seriously contemplating it," he said.
Under current rules, the NCAA maintains a right to a player's likeness in perpetuity, although the player can also sign outside endorsements after graduation. The O'Bannon case looks, among other things, to overturn that rule and has the capability of significantly altering the way college sports operate. Howard would become the highest-profile former college football player to support the case and would be additionally notable because of his current role as an ESPN broadcaster, where he must continue work inside NCAA football.
That may be something worth dealing with.
And while the suit may not be enough to save Johnny Manziel, it would ensure that going forward a player would maintain, as he should, a modicum of control over his image.
Let's get this out of the way: Desmond Howard isn't overly sympathetic to the plight of Johnny Football. For one, Manziel is hardly the first college football star to experience near overnight fame. The world hasn't changed that much since Howard was the center of attention in Ann Arbor.
Besides, the rule against being paid to sign memorabilia, as Manziel is alleged to have done in mass quantities for a five-figure fee, according to ESPN.com, is clear and obvious. If Manziel did what he's being investigated for, Howard said, "there are no excuses [for risking suspension]. This is the most selfish act a player can do to his teammates."
Still, Howard couldn't help but look at the individual pictures that make up the big pictures. Consider the autographed photo for sale on eBay ($149.99) that shows Manziel shedding Alabama cornerback Deion Belue, his arm stretched out, the picture capturing a magical moment in a legendary Aggies victory.
A Heisman pose, if you will.
[Related: Johnny Manziel could be a rebel with a cause]
For Howard, the image rings especially familiar, of course. And it's not just because back in 1991, he made the Heisman pose famous when he was the first player to strike it in celebration after a brilliant punt return against Ohio State.
A photo of that moment has been sold around the globe without Howard's permission, let alone compensation. And Howard knows that due to NCAA rules, he may never truly control the famous picture in which he stars. Then there is this, earlier this year, the photographer of the Heisman pose picture sued Howard over the use of the image.
"I still think its ridiculous that 20-some-odd years after the fact that someone can not only feel like they own the right to my likeness," Howard said, "but they can sue me and affect me."
Who actually owns the photograph is itself a nebulous question. The photographer believes he does. The NCAA and Michigan have rights to it as well. Pretty much everyone but Howard gets a cut. That's the system.
"And because of that Johnny is in trouble," Howard said. "And because of that, this photographer feels he can come at me the way he has and create a business model based on my likeness yet sue me anyway.
For Howard, this bizarre journey began on Nov. 23, 1991. It was the annual Ohio State-Michigan game, and with a little more than four minutes remaining in the first half, a Buckeye named Tim Williams uncorked a punt high and deep into the slate gray sky of Ann Arbor.
Howard caught it at his own 7-yard line, took three stutter steps to the right, turned directly up field and proceeded to shred the Buckeyes. On the ABC broadcast, even the grizzled voice of Keith Jackson was awestruck.
"Oh my goodness," Jackson said breathlessly, before delivering one of his all-time signature calls as Howard got free and clear and impossible to catch along the sideline.
As Howard crossed the end zone he debated with himself whether he should just soak in the cheers of the roaring 106,156-person crowd or turn to his teammates or, perhaps, flash an image-making pose he'd been joking about unleashing for a while now. He knew some would see it as ostentatious, yet fueled by adrenaline he decided, ah, why the heck not. So he unleashed a big smile, planted his right foot, lifted his left knee and extended his left arm forward.
"There shouldn't be any controversy for the Heisman," Ohio State coach John Cooper would say later, after Michigan's 31-3 victory. Indeed, Howard's 213 all-purpose yards that day capped an astounding season. He'd win 85 percent of the vote and receive the trophy in New York City the next month.
Standing not far from Howard that November day, in back of the end zone, was a man named Brian Masck. He was a staff photographer for the Muskegon Chronicle, a paper serving the blue-collar town in Western Michigan. Masck was working as a freelancer for that game, as he often did on weekends. He attended area college games in an attempt to make some extra money by selling shots to newspapers, wire services or, hopefully, the best-paying gig out there, Sports Illustrated.
With the freedom to seek out the perfect picture, Masck was one of the few photographers who abandoned shooting from a traditional spot near the action of the line of scrimmage. He instead took position in the far end zone, just in case Howard did the kind of spectacular thing he was about to do.
Masck worked with a motor-driven Nikon F3 camera, but he'd found, through experience, that simply holding down the shutter release and shooting as many pictures as possible rarely worked in the fast pace of a football game. Cameras were far slower then, particularly on cold November days, and even slightly blurry prints were worthless.
So Masck took each shot individually and, finding himself at such a fortunate angle, hit the button during the instant Howard was in full pose before his teammates piled on top of him. He had his money shot, even if he didn't know it until Sunday, when back in Muskegon he developed the film.
The photo eventually appeared in SI, and Howard's pose became a seminal moment in the game's history. Now almost all aspiring Heisman candidates do it – and they generally use Howard's version, with one leg lifted in the air, rather than the one on the actual trophy, where both feet are on the ground. It's even transcended the game; both President and Michele Obama have been pictured doing it.
Even though Howard, now 43, went on to play 11 seasons in the NFL, won MVP of Super Bowl XXXI in part due to a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown that sealed the Green Bay Packers' title and is now a fixture on national television, the pose remains his signature. The photo has been used on commercials, video-game covers, posters and all other varieties of commoditized goods. Howard has been paid for only some of it.
It's part of what makes Masck's lawsuit filed in January equally complicated, simple, interesting, ridiculous and petty.
For Howard, it's a nightmare, one both he and his attorney say has cost nearly$100,000 to stop. Howard is the lone individual among the co-defendants that include a host of major corporations such as Wal-Mart, Amazon.com and Getty Images. Howard's inclusion in the suit seems mostly for publicity purposes, though that's unclear. Masck's attorney did not respond to an interview request.
Masck's complaint, filed in United States District Court in Detroit, seems to boil down to a dispute between he and Getty Images, the photo service company that believes it acquired Masck's photo when it purchased the right to license a number of works from a company called Allsport USA. Masck, in his lawsuit, claims he never sold the photo to Allsport in the first place.
The case is mostly about complex copyright laws, statute of limitations and whether Masck did enough, in a timely manner, to control full ownership of the photo. The issues at the center of the 67-page complaint could numb your brain.
Almost everyone else – from Wal-Mart, which has sold the photo in its stores; to Fathead, which reproduced it; to Nissan, which featured it in an advertisement – seemingly believed they acted legally by working through Getty. Howard's part came when he and Masck met a few years back and discussed becoming business partners in an effort to maximize profits off the photo.
According to Howard's lawyer, Matthew Bower of Varnum LLP in Novi, Mich., Masck even sent the photo to Howard's web designer, who then splashed it up on the player's own website, DesmondHoward.com.
Masck now claims Howard didn't have permission to use the photo and is suing Howard. Whether Howard did or didn't is almost irrelevant.
"It was only up there briefly," Bower said. "Had he and Desmond negotiated a reasonable licensing fee, it would have been a few hundred dollars. But because of this lawsuit, Desmond is spending tens of thousands of dollars defending himself against claims of damages that is a few hundred at most."
Howard said the lawsuit stunned him because he felt the two men had a good relationship, and the picture was only used after it was emailed to his web designer.
"I was totally blindsided," Howard said. "I have a trail of emails showing how I helped him."
More galling to the Howard camp is that Masck set up his own website, TheTrophyPose.com, to sell framed prints, canvas wraps and other items. It looks, at least to the uninitiated, as if it has the support of Howard.
Howard has not approved the sale of any of the products. Parts of a countersuit by Howard are still pending. Howard notes that a picture of him from the NFL can't be used without his permission, thanks to the players' union. College players have no such representation.
Eventually – and presumably – the case will be worked out. The frustration of getting sued, out of the blue, for such a strange and involved case, has rocked Howard and refocused him on the likeness issue just as the O'Bannon case awaits a class-action certification ruling from a federal judge in California.
Even with Howard's big job in television following years of NFL salaries, the legal bills aren't cheap. The other defendants have deep, corporate pockets. Suffice to say, Wal-Mart isn't blinking over this suit. The companies are likely just waiting for Masck and Getty to sort out the main issue here.
"It's costing me all this money to defend myself over a picture … of me," Howard said. "I never sold the picture, I'm just being lumped into it. His entire business is a picture of me."
And there may be nothing Desmond Howard can do about that.
For Manziel, the issue centers around something perhaps even more personal: the signing of his own name. The NCAA prohibits student-athletes from profiting off their fame, and thus it would be against its rules if Manziel were paid to autograph memorabilia. At the same time, he can sign things for Texas A&M or the NCAA, which are then allowed to sell the items.
Manziel's autograph was reportedly on an Aggie helmet that recently fetched $18,000 for the school.
So who owns a signature? Or a picture? Or a legendary moment on the football field, sticking the Heisman pose, in celebration against Ohio State, or in that Manziel photo currently selling on eBay, in action against Alabama?
"That's one helluva shot of Johnny taken on the path to winning the Heisman," Howard said. "His picture, his signature, his likeness – selling for $150 – and he's not expected to get a dime. Worse, if my situation is any indication, his incidental use could expose him to litigation twenty years down the road."
That's what Howard believes may be worth fighting over.
"Going through what I'm going through right now and to feel the helplessness I do," Howard said. "It makes you want to do what you can do so other players never have to experience this. Something has to be done about this."
Former UCLA basketball star Ed O'Bannon, who spearheaded the suit against the NCAA, is trying. And Michael Hausfeld, the lead attorney for O'Bannon and the other name plaintiffs in the suit, told Yahoo! Sports: "We would certainly welcome the additional support of a player and person the caliber of Desmond Howard."
All these years later, motivated in part by the storm surrounding a young Heisman winner, a former one may be finally on the verge of action. He's always resisted rocking the boat, but you can only be pushed so far.
"What's right," Howard said, "is right."
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