Magazine article Insight on the News

Bona Fides

Magazine article Insight on the News

Bona Fides

Article excerpt

Athletes have a plan to stop counterfeiters from profiting from forged autographs.

Cam Neely, former Boston Bruins right wing, walked into an Atlanta sports bar last year, saw his jersey framed on the wall and began to laugh -- not because Southerners seemed so interested in a Beantown professional-hockey hero, but because the autograph on his jersey was so badly forged.

Neely isn't laughing anymore. A rough-and-tumble player on the ice, he now works for GenuOne, a Boston antifraud company that helps police track down counterfeit memorabilia.

"It was kind of funny at first, how off that jersey in the bar was," recalls Neely. "Then I realized people were making money from this, and that selling fakes nationwide was a much bigger business than a lot of athletes realized. That's when I decided to get Involved."

Many athletes, including Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre (see sidebar), are aiding law-enforcement efforts by siting through merchandise and providing firsthand analysis on whether autographs are theirs. Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Tony Gwynn, for example, worked as informants for the FBI in a sting operation that shut down a ring of dealers selling forged autographs -- a first for the industry.

But as with the war on drugs, one round of arrests does not solve the broader problem. Fake autographs, phony sports memorabilia and counterfeit apparel account for more than $1 billion in sales per year, and more than 70 percent of all merchandise "signed" by major stars such as Michael Jordan and John Elway is believed to be forged.

"I can help other players protect their names and help get fraudulent pieces out of the market because I've been there" says Suipeli Malamala, a former New York Jets offensive lineman now working as vice president of player operations for AuthentiGraph, a New York start-up company that validates sports memorabilia. "I know their point of view and how things work for both buyer and seller and how players are approached."

Of course, the motives for athletes are far from simple charity -- many have millions of dollars in sales at stake, and controlling forgeries means controlling revenues. Retired Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino, for example, recently joined the board of Dreams, a Florida company that sells high-end autographed memorabilia on both the wholesale and retail markets. In joining the company and assuming a sizable equity stake in it, Marino also established the "exclusive" distribution network for authentic autographed Dan Marino memorabilia. Baseball Hall of Famer Ted Williams and his son, John Henry Williams, have formed a similar company, Hitter Communications, touted as the only true source for signed Williams memorabilia.

"The integrity of the brand is essential and must be continually maintained" says Jeffrey Unger, chief executive of GenuOne. "A company like ours is important, because it gives others the ability to regain control."

The athletes' enhanced role is far different than nearly a century ago, when popular ballplayers routinely employed ghost signers to handle autograph requests. "Babe Ruth would regularly get a clubhouse boy, his wife or somebody else to sign stuff for him, especially to deal with all the requests he got through the mail," says Scott Kelnhofer, editor of Card Trade, a baseball-card trade publication. "He didn't want to say no to anybody, and he thought he was doing his fans a favor. He obviously didn't realize the problems that would result years later."

The problem, of course, is people shelling out thousands of dollars for worthless merchandise. …

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