My thanks to Roger Guillemette, who first posted this to the Astronauts Yahoo Group.
Kids often sent to gather signatures for public sale
By Ethan J. Skolnick
Sun-Sentinel Staff writer
December 21, 2003
Backpacks. Stacks of identical photos, categorized alphabetically by player. Footballs with tags still on, among other high-end items. Sharpies, usually blue. Hats pulled over eyes. Angry reactions to personalized messages that increase sentimental value at the expense of re-sale price.
Oh yeah, Zach Thomas reads these guys like an offensive formation. Maybe better. He faces NFL offenses only 16 times per season. He faces an offensive from autograph dealers -- posing as fans or mere collectors -- nearly every day. He can pick them out of any huddle.
"I have a great feel for who's who," Thomas says.
The lobby of the Dolphins' hotel in Buffalo has likely provided another test. If autograph seekers can greet a stunned Patrick Surtain at the airport after his bye-week, cross-country trip, and are willing to interrupt their Thanksgiving holidays to shout players' names from behind velvet ropes at the Renaissance Hotel in Dallas, they are sure to track down the Dolphins before they play the Bills.
The question, one that troubles modern athletes more than you might suspect, is why these people seek signatures.
A chance to meet the athlete? A treasured collectible? Or profit?
"The guys with the backpacks, the pictures that you have to buy, and the mini-helmets, it's pretty obvious," says Ricky Williams, who has noticed real fans are more understanding when he can't sign and more talkative in general. "I think I've gotten pretty good at telling the difference. The other thing the collectors do now, is they say you can personalize it. That's a dead giveaway. Then they just take paint thinner, and rub it off. Yeah, I learned the tactics, I got it down."
Yet even sleuths can be duped by a child's innocent eyes. Chris Chambers frequently fell for that trick as a rookie, until noticing the same kids returning with stacks of the same photos. Terrell Buckley gets the idea a kid is a front when he or she doesn't know any of the players' names. And Jason Taylor gets really angry. He calls it "disgusting, when they send kids to do it. I understand it's a business, but there's a way to go about getting the stuff right. If you're going to sell it, the player should get paid for it, too. And they know that. That's why they try to circumvent the system. And it's wrong."
Taylor tries to sign for kids first. The adults wait, if they get anything at all. But now, Taylor sees the adults just giving the stuff to kids, and Taylor says that is "ruining it for the kids." That's because it's impossible, in Taylor's view, to sign everything, and such tactics discourage him from signing anything. That, in turn, hurts a player's reputation.
Thomas has found that if signs for 100 people in 15 minutes, another 100 will be angry. And he'll get a guilt trip. "They want a crowd around, to make you look like a punk," he says. "Saying things like, `I have a sick son.'"
Rob Konrad remembers hearing Dan Marino was a "jerk who never signed autographs." After joining the Dolphins, Konrad realized that to please everyone, Marino would have to "sign autographs every single second of every single day of his life. Period. I don't think people understand that."
Sam Madison and Junior Seau both say they sign for every kid, regardless of their suspicions. Madison is more discriminating when an adult approaches with 20 pictures -- he agrees to sign a couple, promising more on the next go-round. Then he watches the person go to the other end of the line.
Sometimes, players take action. Buckley personalizes, and has seen people "get hot" about that. Madison might put a line through his name.
Thomas uses two distinct signatures, one connecting his first name and surname with "54" on top (good) and one unconnected with "54" underneath (bad). Sometimes, he prints his name. "They're upset, but they don't say anything," he says.
That's because they know he's onto them. He says he tries to "hook them up," until they abuse it. "They buy a table at a charity event just to get stuff signed," Thomas says. "They stay at the hotel. Every night, after two-a-days, they sit out there. They're like, `you didn't get me.' And I'm like, `I got you last night.' It's a big-money business. And they're living right, driving around in their Hummers and Escalades."
And sometimes, running over the rules. During training camp, community relations director Fudge Browne tries to get players over to a kids' group, only to watch adults with duffle bags trample over the children. She recalled being at an event with Marino, who told a child "this is the last one I'm gonna sign, tell whoever keeps sending you."
Sellers easy to spot
Others share the Dolphins' distaste for dealers.
As P.R. director for the Baltimore Orioles, John Maroon watched Cal Ripken, during marathon autograph sessions, try to serve fans, and particularly kids, first. "If a jersey was taped to the wood a certain way, stretched out to make it easy to sign, it was clear this thing wasn't for their little nephew; it was going up on eBay," says Maroon, who would help Ripken by pointing out the kids.
Heat guard Eddie Jones bristles that they consider it his job to sign 10 of their items. "Sign one, that should be enough," Jones says. "And they don't want you to personalize it. I like it when some parents come up to you, `can you put the date on this, for the kid, to show you met him.' That's great. It means something. But now you just get all these guys coming out trying to sucker you into all these autographs."
Last month on ESPN's Sportscenter, Brett Hull was asked what he would change about the NHL. "Autograph seekers who collect and sell," Hull said. "We hate them."
Al Wittnebert, owner of Uncle Al's Time Capsule in Mount Dora and treasurer for the Universal Autograph Collectors Club, says athletes need to lighten up.
Yes, he knows a Fort Lauderdale mother/collector who sends out a couple of cute blonde girls as props. Yes, he knows some shady autograph seekers falsely claim items are going to charity; he advises athletes to ask for a tax-exempt certificate, not just an easy-to-fake charity letterhead. Yes, he knows the tricks and preferences. Blue is more desirable than black, because it looks better on a color photo, doesn't appear mimeographed, and is slightly easier to erase in the event of personalization. Baseballs are best when signed on the "sweet spot," where the laces come together. Rubber gum erasers and special cloths can take off personalization, though he argues the personalization adds "provenance," important considering the UACC's most recent quarterly study estimated 85 percent of autographs on eBay are fraudulent.
Despite all this, Wittnebert thinks millionaire athletes who sign on a photo's dark areas to depress value are being paranoid, immature and selfish. He used to hire Ted Williams to sign autographs, then watched him smudge roughly 10 percent spitefully. And most athletes aren't as forgivable as Ted Williams. Wittnebert says they don't realize how fleeting adulation is, and how long memories are.
"They are punishing everybody, including themselves, and they don't realize it," Wittnebert says. "The pomp and circumstance lasts up until their rent is due when they are a little older. They should be nice to us. You get a rep as hard-ass and it hurts you down the road, you can't lose it. Then people like me, doing shows, aren't going to hire you."
Taylor says the way to "keep our autographs at a premium," is simply not sign. But Wittnebert and Mike Bertolini, coordinator for the spring's Football Spectacular autograph and collectibles show, dispute that such a premium exists for most players. Wittnebert says 98 percent of autographs lose value unless the player becomes a transcendent superstar. And Bertolini says the supply could never satisfy enough demand to significantly depress value.
"I sell this stuff for a living, and if I was an athlete, I would sign for everyone I could, and not worry about who is selling it," Bertolini says. "Who cares? Why would I worry about someone selling something if I make $1 million a year? I'm not going to receive the income from that autograph if I don't sign them."
Maybe what bothers athletes is that they don't receive the same affection from a dealer as a fan. As a kid, Ricky Williams wasn't a collector, though he does recall waiting in the mall for Padres catcher Terry Kennedy.
"Oh, and LaToya Jackson," he says.
Now it troubles him when people demand a certain color.
"Autographs are great for kids who are really fans," he says. "They can show people that I've met so-and-so and he's a really nice guy. But the guys who sell it, or even the collectors, I'm not necessarily keen on signing things for them."
The skill, of course, is determining who they are. Like in Dallas. There was 42-year-old Todd Johnson, who described himself as "just a collector," but said he has been doing this for a living since 1998. There was 55-year-old Alan Rhodes, hoping (unsuccessfully) Williams would sign a football already graced with the autographs of dozens of other Heisman winners. "They get very wary you're going to turn around and sell it, and there are some who do," said Rhodes, who insisted he never sells anything.
And there was South Florida resident Steve Siff, on a couch behind the line of autograph seekers, including sons Todd and Scott, ages 14 and 13. Both wore multi-signed caps and orange Dolphins jerseys. As they shouted joyfully ("Dad, Brian Griese!") before running to their room, it was clear they were not props.
"They're having a blast," Siff said. "But the adults, I just don't get it."