U.S. Olympic heroes vs. Hockey Hall of Fame: Who owns history?

In 1981, Bill Christian received a phone call from the Hockey Hall of Fame. His son, Dave Christian, had captured a Winter Olympic gold medal for the U.S. men's national hockey team in miraculous fashion in Lake Placid months earlier; accomplishing the same feat Bill Christian did in 1960 for the Americans in the "first Miracle on Ice."

The Christians had made history, becoming the first father and son — and to this day, the only father and son — to win gold medals in the same Winter Olympic sport. The Hall of Fame wanted to know if the family wanted to donate their game-worn sweaters to the hockey museum for display. Since they were stashed away in his Warroad (Minn.) home, Bill Christian agreed, and received a letter confirming that donation.

Only he didn't believe it was a donation. And his son, Dave, said he never agreed to donate or loan his jersey to the Hall at all. Over 30 years later, the Christians are in a battle with the Hockey Hall of Fame over ownership of their Olympic gear.

Who actually owns sports history?

From WCCO in Minnesota, here's a news clip that covers the basics of the dispute:

The summary, from the Associated Press:

Bill Christian said he believed he was only loaning the jerseys, "never dreaming they would be gone forever." But the Hall of Fame has since told the Christians the jerseys now belong to the Hall.

Curator Phil Pritchard told WCCO that the Hall contends the jerseys were donated in 1981, "in a legally effective manner and they are now the property of the Hockey Hall of Fame."

At the center of the dispute is a 1981 letter from the Hockey Hall of Fame to Bill Christian thanking him for "the donation" of the jerseys. That year, he was busy running the Christian Brothers hockey stick company in Warroad. He said he paid little attention to the letter. "I just took it that good, they arrived safely. I never took it as a legal deal they should keep the jerseys," he said.

Dave Christian said it was a mistake not to question the wording of the letter. "My dad is not an attorney," he said.

If this was a misunderstanding, one can sympathize with the Christian family. But like any museum, sports halls of fame believe they have the best interests of history in mind.

Craig Muder, director of communications for the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, said there are no give-backs once an item is submitted. "They sign a donation gift release that basically says they relinquish call claims to that item. That they're giving it to us. In exchange, we agree to care for it in perpetuity."

Izak Westgate, assistant curator for the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, said he's clear with donors up front that items that are gifted to the Hall are done so permanently — even if the items aren't on display.

"A lot of our displays, we try to change on an annual basis, simply because not everything in the museum is climate controlled. As a museum, part of our goal is to preserve everything as well as to display it," he said. "Another part of preserving them is that we have an outreach program, taking things on the road."

The official donation rules for the Hockey Hall of Fame spell this out, as well as the rare instances when there is "de-accessioning" of an item; i.e. upgrading from a replica jersey to something game-worn.

Items on loan to the Hall of Fame are rare; in some cases, they're on loan from other collections. The Hockey Hall of Fame disputes that the Christian jerseys were on loan.

From a legal perspective, Dave Christian's case could be interesting; did his father have authority to give his jersey to the Hall of Fame? Was there any agreement between Dave Christian and the Hall of Fame?

From a moral perspective … who owns history?

If an athlete accomplishes something extraordinary, shares an artifact of this feat with a museum for 30 years and then wants it back, should they be able to reacquire it?

The Hall of Fame would make two arguments here. First, that its primary objective is to preserve and maintain such artifacts, and that giving it back would mean potentially losing it to deterioration or neglect over the years, depriving fans from ever seeing it.

Second would be precedent: Sports memorabilia is a cash cow thanks to auctions houses, memorabilia stores and eBay. This is especially true for artifacts from moments like the Miracle on Ice; a gold medal from the U.S. team sold for $310,000 last year.

(Let's not ignore the financial incentive for the Hall of Fame, either, in having a substantial collection from which to draw for road shows and the like.)

Whether or not the Christians would flip their sweaters for profit is, frankly, their business. But the Hall of Fame receives such requests on an annual basis — rejecting them by claiming that once an item is theirs, it's theirs forever.

Even if it was Bill and Dave Christian who transformed the sweaters from a patterned assemblage of patches and thread into hockey history.