When Cody Kessler, a redshirt sophomore quarterback now battling for the starter's job at Southern California, was invited to play in the 2011 U.S. Army All-American Bowl , an all-star prep football game for top recruits, he remembers being asked for his autograph – by the company producing his commemorative trading card.
"We get to the site and (signing autograph sheets) is one of the first things we do," Kessler said. "We sign like 200 in a row. I didn't think twice about it. You just sit down and sign autographs. I thought it was going to the soldiers or something like that."
Like most or all of the other players in that game, Kessler signed autographs that would end up as part of a set produced by the Leaf Trading Card Company, which has been selling autographed trading cards from the U.S. Army game since 2009.
The practice is not a violation of NCAA rules and does not endanger the players' amateur status. The players are not paid to sign and do not get royalties from the card sales. Yet as name-and-likeness issues have turned into lawsuits against the NCAA and sparked debate about college athletes' rights, the prep cards illuminate another cottage industry that capitalizes on the notoriety of amateur athletes.
The autographed cards from the U.S. Army game hit the market every spring and are snapped up by collectors. If a player hits it big, the price on the secondary market can skyrocket.
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An autographed Leaf card of Kessler in his U.S. Army jersey was being offered Sunday on eBay for $29.99. That's a pittance compared to the $499.99 asking price for a signed card featuring an action picture from the 2012 U.S. Army game of running back T.J. Yeldon, who shot to stardom on a national championship team at Alabama with a 1,000-yard freshman season.
Leaf, which also is one of the game's sponsors, tells parents the autographs are an opportunity, not a requirement. Most often, high school players enjoy the early taste of celebrity, those involved with the game say.
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"Some of the parents have asked the Leaf people, 'Why should my kid sign?'" says Doug Berman, chairman of All-American Games, the company that owns and produces the all-star game. "The answer is, 'Well, you don't have to.' But for many of these players, this will be the only time in their athletic careers they are on a trading card. To be singled out at that point in time for their athletic achievement is not a bad thing."
Are the players specifically told that they are signing cards the company intends to package and sell?
Leaf CEO Brian Gray says there is no pressure put on the high school players and they have the option to decline. "But really," he says, "If you don't want to be on the card, there's something wrong with you."
Berman says the players are told that the signing is being done "as part of the issuing of the cards. I don't know that we sit there and say, before you sign, 'Now you understand that this will be sold . . .' It's not like they're unaware it's being used as a commemorative set of trading cards."
Not NCAA turf
Gray said he hates it when he sees people "try to gouge. We have no control over the secondary market. I hate that people charge high prices for these things. Now there are a lot of questions about Johnny Manziel, and that tells you a lot about the demand in the marketplace."
Manziel, the Texas A&M quarterback who won the Heisman Trophy as a freshman last season, is being investigated for allegedly receiving money for signing autographs, which is an NCAA violation.
"These (All-Star game participants) are not even in the NCAA yet," Gray says. "It doesn't have anything to do with the NCAA."
NCAA spokesperson Emily Potter declined to comment on the practice of selling high school players' autographs.
Kessler and two other current college players said they were fairly uninformed about how the autographs they signed at the U.S. Army game would be used.
"That whole day, we were trying on jerseys, trying on shoes, sitting down and signing autographs. I don't remember if they said anything," Kessler said.
USC freshman safety Su'a Cravens, who was USA TODAY Sports' prep defensive player of the year in 2012, played in the U.S. Army game last January and says he signed autographs for about 90 minutes.
"I didn't know what the autographs were for," Cravens says. "They didn't tell us anything. They just sat us down and said, 'Sign this.'"
Asked if he might want a piece of the pie if his card was being sold, Cravens said, "I don't think so. My card is probably worth about 99 cents."
Told that somebody was selling Yeldon's card for $500, Cravens said, "Really? Maybe I do want a piece of the pie."
UCLA sophomore cornerback Ishmael Adams told a similar story about his participation in the 2012 game.
"I didn't really think anything about the signing," Adams says. "I guess I thought somebody was going to sell them. It didn't bother me."
Limited, and popular
Leaf's cards are snapped up pretty quickly by collectors because the company produces relatively few sets.
"The rarity is what makes them so popular," says Eddie Martinez, owner of The Old Ballpark Sportscards & Collectibles in Alvin, Texas. "They only make 80 to 100 sets each year. So people grab them because they're rare, and because one of these kids might turn out to be Johnny Manziel. Imagine if you had a trading card of Michael Jordan when he was in high school."
A full set is comprised of 12 boxes, each of which contain a dozen autographed cards and retail for about $120 per box. That works out to $10 per autographed card, with collectors betting that individual cards of future stars will make up for those that don't hold their value. An ad on eBay offered a case price of $1,200, which lowers the per-price card to about $8.33.
On its website, Leaf said it produced only 99 sets of the 2013 collection.
Both Berman and Gray argue that the money made off the players' autographs and pictures is not exploitative.
"Our view is that this is a great opportunity for the players," Berman says. "When they're in our game, their name and likeness has zero value. I think Leaf has done a good job. They're very respectful to the kids. It's a very high-quality product. They make every effort to celebrate the kids as U.S. Army All-Americans. The kids are excited to be treated as a nominal celebrity as opposed to thinking of themselves as being exploited."
Leaf got into a spat last year with Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck when the company released a U.S. Army card of Leaf, who played in the 2008 game before going on to become a star at Stanford. Luck objected to the card being issued, saying he had never approved it.
Leaf responded by suing him, saying it had a First Amendment right to do so, claiming that the game operators had granted Leaf the license to player likenesses. The 2008 game was before Leaf began issuing sets of trading cards from the game, but it has issued alumni cards – such as the 2008 Luck card.
The matter was settled out of court and both parties agreed not to comment on it, but Gray did issue an apology "for moving this dispute to the legal venue for resolution."
Gray says that the point of the game – and part of Leaf's interest in being involved as a sponsor – is to promote a positive message about the U.S. Army.
"If that's a bad thing," he says, "then we are screwed. I think what we're doing is right and stays well within any moral, ethical and legal boundaries."
Kessler sees one positive if his card becomes worth a lot more money — he must be playing pretty well.
"Big-time athletes know that people are going to want to associate with you and get anything they can from you," Kessler says. "So if someone makes it big, then they can sell the card for a lot of money? That doesn't bother me. If that happens to me, it probably means I'm doing something good."