New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning settled his memorabilia fraud case just before it was slated to go to trial on Monday. Details of the deal were not disclosed and all parties, including the Giants, released a statement stating that settling was not an admission of wrongdoing. Manning was accused of conspiring to defraud memorabilia collectors by selling equipment that he never actually wore. That equipment would then show up for sale at Steiner Sports.
This case is the perfect example of what a hazardous road collectors face when collecting game-used memorabilia. I should point out that this is in no way an indictment of any of the parties involved. Since Manning was not convicted I can’t say he was guilty. Steiner Sports, a fairly reputable dealer, could only depend on Eli’s word that the equipment they were being given was in fact game-used. It is a slippery slope and the only real loser is the person who shells out hundreds dollars and ends up with a jersey that a player never actually wore in a game.
This isn’t an isolated incident. In 2012, sports memorabilia dealer Bradley Wells pleaded guilty to selling fraudulent game-used items to trading card manufacturers. Wells told the FBI that Upper Deck, Topps, and Panini America knew they were purchasing items that Wells himself had doctored to appear game-used. Those jerseys would then be cut up and pieces inserted into trading cards. There have been several instances where jersey swatches feature Mitchell and Ness logos or an interesting case where a Whitey Ford jersey card featured a Majestic logo. Majestic didn’t begin business until 15 years after Ford retired.
There have been countless stories of athletes using another party to fulfill their autograph quota for trading card companies. Lonzo Ball, who was a hot commodity in the sports card world right after he was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers, has had several different looking autographs appear on cards. Many have speculated that LaVar Ball signed cards with his son’s name.
Collectors are the only ones who lose out. They spend hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars expecting major companies to vet the products they are peddling. When things go wrong, like the several cases of wrongly labeled game-worn cards, there are no consequences. The worst that might happen is a little social media backlash. However, thanks to exclusive rights deals that card companies have with different sports there is no competition. Card companies have a monopoly on the sport.
The exclusive rights has limited the amount of product, which has solved the oversaturation of the market that almost ruined the hobby in the 1990s. However, it might actually be harming the hobby as well. Topps, which has an exclusive rights contract with Major League Baseball, is the only company that can produce trading cards that feature MLB logos. Panini does offer baseball cards, notably through the Donruss label, but do not feature logos or team names. Panini has exclusive rights with the NBA, NFL, and NHL. Collectors have no way to voice their displeasure with their wallets unless they stop collecting. That is a huge problem.
The different sports leagues, players, and card manufacturers can continue defrauding collectors, whether intentionally or unintentionally, with little or no repercussions aside from paying out some money. The FBI has prosecuted some individuals in the past but those were smaller dealers who were faking autographs. The major companies and the sports leagues have escaped any real harm.
Collecting in this day and age is difficult. Prices have increased but the pitfalls have grown as well when they should shrink. Collectors should be able to purchase cards and memorabilia without worrying about being ripped off. At least not by the companies, players, and leagues we expect to hold a high standard. The reality is they are all no different from the guy who fakes an autograph and puts it up on eBay. When they get caught they apologize, pay the person who complained under the table, and move on. The sports memorabilia industry is a multi-billion industry and is hardly regulated at all. Only the FBI steps in from time to time and prosecutes individuals defrauding collectors. It isn’t enough.
There are still no protections for collectors. There is no oversight, except by the companies themselves and that isn’t good enough anymore. Not when time and time again major companies have either made mistakes or willingly scammed collectors. Not when athletes are committing fraud. Oversight on a massive level is necessary and companies should lose exclusive rights licenses when they are found to be defrauding consumers. Imagine the outrage if this occurred in another multi-billion industry that was more mainstream than sports card and memorabilia collecting. It would be front page news everywhere.
The Manning case is just the latest example. It won’t be the last. Collectors will continue to buy because they want to build their collections or invest for the future. They will have to navigate minefields in an industry where even a perceived nice guy like Eli Manning might be ripping you off. Sadly, things aren’t going to change any time soon either. Navigating the minefield is still hazardous to collectors.