Vols host BBQ for fans
A long line of patient Tennessee fans waited outside Thompson-Boling Arena on Wednesday night. Some grasped mini footballs, replica UT helmets and pictures of their favorite players. Inside the arena, the Knoxville Region UTK Alumni Chapter’s annual Welcome Back Barbecue awaited.
The menu included pulled barbecue, roasted chicken pieces, baked beans and, of course, autographs.
But this year’s event was unlike any of the past, where freewheeling fans had unfiltered access to players for autographs.
Thanks to the highly publicized saga of Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel’s alleged pay-for-autographs misdoings, Tennessee, like other programs as of late, implemented a new, restrictive autograph policy for the event.
It’s just a sign of things to come.
“It’s a new day,” UT athletic director Dave Hart told the News Sentinel, tucked in a tunnel leading to the Thompson-Boling Arena floor filled with approximately 1,600 fans. “The landscape has shifted and we’re assessing events just like this because of that landscape shift. We’ll find ways for people to interact, but not necessarily with the players.”
Black and white posters declared the new day. Fans entering the arena were met by a set of rules headlined, “Autograph Restrictions.” The poster began, “Due to NCAA concerns, we ask all attendees to please adhere to our autograph policy.”
Those policies stated players could not sign personally owned items such as footballs and helmets. Instead, only a university-issued poster could be signed and every signature had to be personalized by the student-athlete to the recipient.
The poster ended with an italicized message saying profiting from autographs could result in the loss of a student-athlete’s eligibility.
“I think everybody (in collegiate athletics) is going to take whatever they are doing and reexamine it a little bit,” Hart said. “But not to the point of elimination of opportunities. For example, if all them sign a poster that looks alike, that’s one thing. If people are personalizing it, that’s fine. But if people are going to market that, that’s an issue and it’s real.”
All this stems from reports of autograph brokers alleging Manziel, college football’s reigning Heisman Trophy winner, accepted money in exchange for participating in autograph sessions. Per NCAA Bylaw 18.104.22.168, student-athletes may not accept money for promotion or sale of a product or service.
That includes autographs. Manziel’s eligibility in 2013 is now the centerpiece of football’s preseason. As a result, athletic departments everywhere are scrambling to assure their stars don’t sink in similar murky waters.
UT made no formal announcement of its autograph policy change prior to Wednesday night. Many fans left the arena with unsigned items and quizzical looks. Admission for adults was $10, $6 for children.
Asked about educating the fan base, Hart replied, “We have not had that opportunity and I’m not sure anybody has with an entire fan base.”
According to Hart, that will come with time. This is all very new. What’s most important now, he said, is “not putting our student-athletes in an environment that could potentially create issues.”
Some players are different than others. Fans flocked to offensive tackle Antonio “Tiny” Richardson on Wednesday, posing for pictures and asking for his signature. Richardson is projected as a first-round pick in the 2014 NFL draft and he’s not the only future pro on the UT roster. Those players are most susceptible to lurking outsiders profiting off their likeness.
“They are elite athletes that are going to play at the next level, so we meet individually with all them because the scrutiny is ratcheted up considerably on those young men,” Hart said.
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee football and men’s basketball. Follow him at Twitter.com/QuinnKNS.