Sarah K. Fields is an associate professor in communication at the University of Colorado—Denver. She answered some questions about her book Game Faces: Sport Celebrity and the Laws of Reputation.
Q: How are cases involving sports figures different than those involving other types of celebrities (actors, singers, etc.)?
Sarah Fields: Legally there is no difference between lawsuits involving sports figure and other celebrities. The law doesn’t differentiate between the two groups. I chose to focus on sports figures and their lawsuits in this book because sport is my area of expertise, and I am particularly interested in the evolution of the relationship between sports figures and press.
Q: When and why did sports figures gain this level of celebrity? Was there a turning point in sports history that changed this, or were they always seen as such?
Fields: Sports figures have long been popular figures and celebrities of a sort. W.G. Grace was a great cricket player in the late nineteenth century, and scholars have argued that he was the first celebrity athlete. Newspaper reports from England in that time period said that local soccer players were more famous than politicians. In the United States during the Golden Era of sport in the 1920s and beyond, athletes such as Red Grange and Jack Dempsey received celebrity treatment. At that same time Babe Ruth had an agent who helped him get endorsements, and he was the precursor of the modern celebrity athlete who profits as much from his image as he does from his on-field performance. Tennis player Rene Lacoste created a clothing line while still playing; his nickname was the Crocodile and his signature logo was a small crocodile on his shirts. Today’s athletes are just doing what athletes in the past have done; but because of the rise of consumerism and the increased media presence, more athletes have more opportunities to sell themselves as celebrities and endorsers off the field.
Q: How do rulings on the privacy of celebrities affect the lives of the non-famous?
Fields: These decisions affect the “average” person in several ways. Practically everyone, particularly in the United States, is a consumer. As consumers, we are the market, the target audience, for companies who use celebrity endorsers to sell us stuff. Marketers believe (and research tends to support this belief) that we will buy stuff if it is endorsed by famous athletes. Nike didn’t even start making golfing equipment before they signed Tiger Woods as a spokesman and today their equipment is quite popular and profitable. As the courts make decisions affecting celebrity athletes’ control of their image, those decisions affect consumers and how we are marketed to. Another way these rulings affect the non-famous is that the difference between celebrity and non-celebrity is blurring. Almost anyone can become a celebrity (at least briefly) with a viral video or some other entrance into the public eye. In our fifteen minutes of fame, those rulings about celebrity directly affect us.
Q: Joe Montana sued the San Jose Mercury News for publishing photographs of him which he felt violated his “right of publicity.” The press won the case, with the decision that the image remained newsworthy. Following this case, did any other celebrities come out against their image being used without permission?
Fields: Absolutely. In 2012 “Pretty Boy” Doug Somers, a retired professional wrestler, lost his lawsuit against the WWE for using old footage of his fights without his permission. The court ruled that footage was newsworthy and rejected Somers’ argument that the use violated his right of publicity. In 2014, legal representatives of a number of female celebrities (including actress Jennifer Lawrence) threatened to sue Google and other websites which had naked images of the celebrities. The women’s nude photographs had been hacked off cloud accounts and posted onto different sites, but after the uproar, most the images were removed.
Q: What was the importance of the Spahn v. Julian Messner, Inc. case, in regards to “positive” inaccuracies?
Fields: The Spahn decision mattered because it established that public figures cannot be “fictionalized” without their permission, even if that “fictionalization” makes them look better, more heroic, than they were in real life. As a result of the Spahn decision, unauthorized biographies of celebrities and athletes were forced to be more accurate. The case also matters because I think it shows something about Warren Spahn the man. Who spends so much time and money on a series of lawsuits to establish that he wasn’t as wonderful as a book portrayed him? Spahn fought hard to make sure that a portrayal of him as a hero didn’t lessen the value of the word. He believed that those who died in World War II were the real heroes, and despite his baseball prowess and his own military service, he did not put himself in that category. That shows character.