First there was Johnny Manziel, then Johnny Football and eventually Johnny Heisman.
Now, there's Johnny Plaintiff.
News broke late last week that a company representing the star quarterback filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking a halt to the sale of T-shirts, compensation for alleged trademark infringement, reimbursement for court fees and exemplary damages in excess of the trademark compensation.
A&M officials said the move is necessary to protect Manziel's "Johnny Football" trademark, from which he could one day profit. But at least one pundit has voiced concern that the money the amateur athlete could net from the lawsuit exposes a loophole in NCAA rules.
The lawsuit targets Eric Vaughan of Fairview, owner of the website www.keepcalmandjohnnyfootball.com, which has been selling $19.99 men's and women's maroon T-shirts that say "Keep Calm and Johnny Football." The Eagle could not reach Vaughan for comment. He does not have a lawyer listed in any of the court filings.
A December cease-and-desist letter from Manziel's lawyer did not dissuade shirt production, and as of Tuesday the website was still live. However, the website reverted to keepcalmandjuannyfutbol.com and appeared to be peddling an "edicion limited" Spanish-language version reading "Keep calm and Juanny Fútbol."
The trademark for "Johnny Football" was filed on Feb. 2 by Manziel's limited liability company, JMAN2 Enterprises L.L.C. The trademark, which has been in the works since mid-football season, is pending, but doesn't need to be federally registered for an ownership claim.
Tyler lawyer Bennett White represents JMAN2 Enterprises, L.L.C. White reaffirmed the lawsuit is to protect the A&M star. He said the L.L.C. is operated by a manager, not Manziel, so that the student athlete can focus on going to college.
Still, White said, Manziel knew of the trademark lawsuit and stands behind the litigation.
White wouldn't comment on specific details in the lawsuit, but said that overall the hope is to send a strong message to others.
"The reason to seek damages would be to avoid having to file lots and lots of lawsuits because people may be willing to monitor their behavior and honor their rights," White said.
David Batson, A&M director of athletic compliance, said the sale of shirts does not endanger Manziel's eligibility, but it jeopardizes his trademark "Johnny Football." If Manziel allows unlicensed use of his trademark, Batson said, the courts could see it as abandoned, thus jeopardizing future moneymaking once Manziel is not bound by NCAA regulations.
Shane Hinckley, Texas A&M assistant vice president of business development, said that the university is not part of the trademark lawsuit against Vaughan. However, his department pursues A&M trademark infringements, and oftentimes those overlap.
He said concerned citizens have sent notice of possible infringements to Manziel's lawyers, his department, University President R. Bowen Loftin and Manziel's parents. Hinckley said the university has sent more than 60 cease-and-desist letters related to Manziel, and successfully removed more than 900 infringing items off of Ebay.
Trademark infringement, Hinckley said, misleads people into thinking Manziel or the university supports merchandise or messages that they do not, and essentially steals money typically slated for student scholarships, athletic scholarships, university marketing and the Bonfire memorial maintenance fund.
"A great question that people should understand is that, 'Does Johnny or does he not support or endorse this shirt?' Hinckley said. "He does not."
It is unclear how much money Manziel could take home from lawsuit. Neither A&M nor White could say, but White added there's no award ceiling in federal court. The financial situation of Manziel, who bought himself courtside seats to the Miami Heat and Dallas Mavericks basketball in December, is not known publicly.
A&M recently received a NCAA ruling that states Manziel can pocket the cash from the the lawsuit without forfeiting his amateur status, meaning Manziel could legitimately earn thousands of dollars from his exploits on the field and maintain his amateur status.
Sportswriter Clay Travis with outkickthecoverage.com raised the concern that sports boosters could intentionally infringe on trademarks, get sued by student athletes, and thus legally funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars to student athletes. Travis called it a loophole big enough to drive a Rolls-Royce through that could potentially impact other student athletes across the nation, and their decision of which university to attend.
Hinckley was emphatic that Vaughan was not conspiring with Manziel or A&M.
"I can absolutely guarantee he's not a booster," he said.
When asked if there are any NCAA rules or guidelines in place to keep boosters from purposely getting sued by a student athlete for trademark infringement, a NCAA spokeswoman deferred comment to A&M.
"There are rules in place that would prohibit someone from using the legal system as a loophole," said Batson. "This intent to provide a student-athlete a benefit is still going to circumvent the rules even if you try to game the system and pull one over on a judge. NCAA rules already address that."
Still, there is no end in sight for Manziel's competitive spirit: Both the university and Manziel's personal lawyers have their sights set on others who might be guilty of trademark infringement.
"There are other incidences similar to this that are being reviewed for possible additional legal litigation by both parties," Hinckley said.