'Johnny Football' name sparks off-field battle

Johnny Manziel #2 of the Texas A&M Aggies at Kyle Field on Oct. 20, 2012 in College Station, Texas. Manziel is a national phenom, but his "Johnny Football" nickname has sparked a legal battle over naming rights.

CORRECTION: The story originally misidentified Anthony Davis as a player for the Charlotte Hornets. Anthony Davis plays for the New Orleans Hornets. The text has been corrected.

Texas A&M football is having a breakthrough season in the school’s first run through the Southeastern Conference. A 9-2 record has brought a national spotlight and a renewed excitement for long-suffering alumni and fans. But it’s also brought people looking to capitalize on all that success.

A&M has the new conference, a new head coach and a new kid leading the team at quarterback: 19-year-old Johnny Manziel, also known as Johnny Football.

“He brings that excitement back that we’ve been starved for in the last few years,” said A&M graduate Evan Otto, just one example of the new cult of Johnny Football.

“We love our stories, we love our traditions, and we love our legends,” Otto said. “And Johnny Football -- you have a legend in the making right there.”

And at least one company is trying to capitalize on that. A few weeks ago, an investment group in Texas filed for the “Johnny Football” trademark. The Manziel family then began drawing up their own petition for the trademark and were quickly joined by Texas A&M.

“It gains a lot of attention now, but it’s something that savvy entertainers have been doing for a long time,” said Joshua Jones, a trademark and intellectual property lawyer in Austin.

Just this year, Anthony Davis of the NBA’s New Orleans Hornets trademarked the phrase “Fear the Brow,” a reference to his athletic prowess and unibrow. And Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III snatched up “RG3.” But those guys are professional athletes. Johnny Manziel is still in college and can’t make any money based on his college football career.

“The NCAA is very clear,” said Shane Hinckley, an assistant vice president in Texas A&M’s business development office. “A player’s name, image, likeness or nickname cannot be used by the institution or by a private individual to sell merchandise.”

If that Texas investment group actually started selling Johnny Football shirts at $20 a pop, quarterback Johnny Manziel -- even if he doesn’t collect a dime -- could lose his college eligibility and have to quit the team. So the school’s involvement is as much about self-preservation as it is anything else.

“First and foremost, protecting his eligibility was the focus,” Hinckley said. “But as this continued, the thought process was, 'hey, if somebody’s doing this and they’re not associated with the university or the family, making money off of his likeness, that’s not right.'”

But if the family gets the trademark, nobody will make money on Manziel until he finishes his college career. That means no Johnny Football T-shirts, no bobbleheads, no Manziel Meatball subs at a local restaurant. Nothing -- until he’s out of college. Which Texas A&M fans hope won’t be for a couple more years.

Comments

I agree to American Public Media's Terms and Conditions.
With Generous Support From...