Why is former Ohio State football player Chris Spielman suing his alma mater?
Not because he wanted to or because he wants more money for himself, but because he felt it was the right thing to do.
"I feel that it’s what I was brought up to do by my parents. When you can make a difference and if you can stand for something right, then you stand up," Spielman told Eleven Warriors on Monday. "I had to explain to my kids what was going on, and I told them this: 'In life, doing the right thing is going to be difficult and hard at times, but sitting around when you know you have a chance to make a difference in teammates' lives or peoples' lives, and you choose not to, then that’s cowardly.' And I think this is a fight that is worth fighting."
Spielman filed a lawsuit against The Ohio State University and IMG College on Friday, accusing the university and the marketing company of using the images and likenesses of he and other former Ohio State football players without their permission and without compensating them for financial agreements with third parties, specifically including Honda and Nike.
Brian K. Duncan, the attorney representing Spielman in the lawsuit, says he and his client "spent the greater portion of eight months attempting to negotiate a mutually beneficial resolution on behalf of former OSU football players with IMG College as well as Ohio State."
Filing a lawsuit, Duncan said, was the last step they wanted to take.
"We took every measure to be able to avoid this," Duncan told Eleven Warriors. "At the end of the day, we were forced to do what needed to be done."
The Columbus Dispatch reported Friday that Ohio State "made a compensatory offer that was in the low six figures" in hopes of reaching a settlement with Spielman. Duncan, however, said "there was never a firm counter-offer submitted by IMG and/or The Ohio State University to resolve these issues."
Spielman says he isn’t seeking any personal financial gain from the lawsuit. Should he win the lawsuit or reach a settlement with Ohio State and IMG, Spielman plans to give any money he makes back to the OSU athletic department.
It made Spielman sick to his stomach to take legal action against the university he still loves and supports, but he strongly believes that former college athletes – not just Ohio State football players, but athletes from all sports at all NCAA institutions – should have rights over their own names and likenesses and the right to negotiate before universities use those names and likenesses for their own profits.
"You think I wake up and say 'Hey, I want to sue Ohio State today?' It’s gut-wrenching, but it’s the right thing to do," Spielman said.
While Spielman currently works as an NFL analyst for Fox Sports and as a sports radio host for 105.7 The Zone in Columbus, he hopes the lawsuit will lead to a resolution that benefits other former Ohio State athletes that might have fallen on harder financial times.
"Other guys could benefit from our programs that we want to put in place. Other guys are struggling financially, that we can give them a helping hand up or maybe relieve pressure," Spielman said. "Why do we have to hold a fundraiser for the late, great Jack Tatum? Why can’t we just have players use these programs to help generate revenue for former players that may need our help?"
“You think I wake up and say ‘Hey, I want to sue Ohio State today?’ It’s gut-wrenching, but it’s the right thing to do.” – Chris Spielman
Spielman’s lawsuit does not focus on whether current college athletes should be allowed to profit off of their likenesses. He wants there to be protections in place, though, so that those athletes can profit off their likeness once their collegiate careers are over.
"We’re doing this for past players, former players, current players and future players," Spielman said. "This is for the current players when they become former players, so that they can have a say in how their name and likeness is used, but they can still be effective representatives of the university and they still can be ambassadors of the university."
Spielman also said he is happy to have Ohio State use his name and likeness to promote the university, so long as the university does not use it to profit from a third party without his permission.
"I am humbled and honored any time Ohio State uses my name and image. But when you slap a third-party corporate sponsor or corporate advertiser or corporate partner without asking or without giving me a right to say yes or no, then that’s where the problem comes in," Spielman said. "If you want to hang a banner of me? Thank you, this is so cool. But when you slap a logo, wait a second, what if I don’t agree with that logo?"
Before filing the potential class action lawsuit, Duncan says he and Spielman generated support from hundreds of former Ohio State athletes and dozens of other high-profile former collegiate athletes from outside the university. Duncan says the reaction they have received from former players has been unanimously positive since the lawsuit went public on Friday.
"The reaction from the former players since the beginning stages of this process that we undertook with the university and IMG has been overwhelmingly in favor," Duncan said. "I have not received any response whatsoever from a former player that has indicated anything other than that they’re 100 percent on board."
Spielman says he has also received messages of support from a number of current Division I college football coaches, who have told them they understand why he is doing what he is doing.
"I could be wrong, maybe some don’t, but I assume (most coaches) want to stand for their former players," Spielman said.
Critics of Spielman’s lawsuit have questioned why he would take action against the university that gave him a scholarship and jump-started his NFL career. Spielman, though, says he believes he has held up his end of the bargain as a former scholarship athlete.
"In my opinion, I’ve been teammates with Ohio State for years as an ambassador," Spielman said. "I think I represent Ohio State every time I go out and speak or every time I’m in public. I represent the James Cancer Hospital (whose breast cancer research center is named after Spielman’s late wife Stefanie) at The Ohio State University the best way that I can. I’ve been partners with Ohio State for years. But does that mean that I don’t control my name and likeness?"
Neither Ohio State nor IMG has issued an official response to Spielman’s lawsuit yet, but the university did release a statement from athletic director Gene Smith on Friday.
"We immensely value our relationships with all of our former student athletes," Smith said. "Ohio State is aware of the lawsuit that Chris Spielman has filed, and we are in the process of reviewing it."
Ultimately, Spielman believes it would benefit everyone – former players, the university and advertisers alike – if Ohio State and IMG would begin working in coordination with former players to negotiate marketing opportunities with third parties.
"We want to be teammates," Spielman said. "That’s all I want, is to be teammates, so everybody can win, so we help people along the way."