Penning the Hobby: Can You Trust Your Favorite Player Anymore?

Discussing authenticity of autographs delivered by card companies may seem combative in its very nature, but its something I want to discuss my opinions on. Let me start off by saying that this issue at heart is not an issue as much with the manufacturers themselves. In some cases they may directly contribute to the issue existing through the processes they us, but they don’t have any control over the players. I do not hold them 100% at fault in any way, but do want them to take notice of the culture they may be cultivating.

Since the early 1990s, autographs have been included in packs. In the early part of the 2000s, the amount of autograph content delivered in an accessible fashion blew up, to the point today where EVERY product has autographs including cheap ones. In fact, I would go so far as saying its close to impossible to have a successful product with no autograph content on a large scale. As a result, most of the cost of a product comes from the hits of the set, rather than some of the other more traditional elements.

The question becomes, when hundreds of thousands of autographs are required each year for your products, how can the process be managed to ensure authenticity? The answer isn’t as simple as you might think. Its easy to say that companies just need to witness every signature, but that might not be cost effective. The public wont buy without autographs, but they also wont buy if the price is too high for the level of content delivered in the set. To get more witnesses to autographs means more cost in obtaining them, and of course, more redemptions. Now you have to deal with athlete schedules more than ever before.

All that being said, things are a machine today, and we need to study the cogs to see what makes it work.

To start, check out these autographs side by side – what do you notice?

2011 Topps Five Star Cam Newton Auto Booklet RC

2011 Gridiron Gear Cam Newton Auto Jersey

2011 Certified Dez Bryant Auto Relic Fabric of the Game

2011 Plates and Patches Dez Bryant Auto Patch RC

2010 Certified Ryan Mathews Auto Freshman Fabric

2012 Absolute Ryan Mathews Auto Patch

The main way that autographs are obtained is not through direct witness, but instead a returned signed card accompanied by a sworn affidavit declaring the authenticity of the card. For some players, signing cards is something they see as a necessary part of being a pro athlete. For others, it’s a chore or even a nuisance. Considering how much athletes are paid for playing, and how much they get for signing, its easy to see why so many of the cards go unfulfilled. On top of that, the card companies have little to no recourse in pursuing delinquency, because there is no threat of monetary damages that can override the amount of money they already make. Any recourse will also sour the reputation of the company bringing the heat, and that is worse for business than anything. Go after one player, and you could lose all players under that same agency. No one wants to do a chore for someone they are bothered by, right?

Because of this situation, you are probably starting to see why the rookie premiere is so important in basketball and football. The rookies, at least in football, are forced to attend by the NFLPA, and also forced to sign as much as needed. Because they have a captive audience, things get done in huge volumes.

Outside of that, it all depends. Companies need tens of thousands of autos per rookie each year, and you can only guess what it must mean to sign in that quantity. Its also easy to see why some athletes may skirt the action itself, or take less ethical means to complete it. This is where things get messy. Lets say, for instance, an athlete decides they don’t want to sign, but still want to complete the signed contract. They have a friend or family member sign secretarial signatures, and return them to the card company – likely through the agent. Because the card company has intake of 100,000 signatures, they cant inspect every card.

The card gets packed out, and collectors notice something is up. Manufacturer is obligated to approach the agent to find out what is going on, but because everything is self-reported, nothing is gained by this action. Of course the player and agent will say he signed, because they want to get the action done and out of their hair. They don’t want the inconvenience of dealing with further signings, so they just agree that it was done ethically.

The company, who knows this is all a vicious circle, lets that one act go, but will no longer do business with that athlete. Meanwhile, they cant say the autographs aren’t real, because they want to save face, and also not piss off the rest of the players out there. They are put in a very precarious position. Collectors are in a worse position, because they think the company is bullshitting them (potentially), and they want their stuff replaced. Everyone loses.

I have never had to experience this first hand until this season, when Cordarrelle Patterson started to draw my ire. In my opinion, some cards signed by him for a few Panini products don’t look consistent with his normal autograph. The slant of the letters, the start and stop points, and the pen pressure don’t look right. I cant prove that anything is going on because of the things mentioned above, so I am left just avoiding the cards all together. F so I am left just avoiding the cards all together or a player collector, this is the ultimate test of my patience. I don’t fault Panini, because he has signed thousands of cards for them that look correct. Some sets have a combination of good and bad if you can believe it.

Manufacturers cite player laziness and volume as the main reason why autographs can differ. They are blowing smoke up your ass, and it hurts that autograph forgers use the same excuse. “OH ITS REAL! I SAW IT MYSELF! HE WAS JUST SIGNING A TON, SO THAT’S WHY ITS DIFFERENT THAN 100% OF THE PREVIOUS EXAMPLES!

An example for you.

In 2012, I had the opportunity to meet Christian Ponder at an event in Minnesota. He was a guest of a party, where his whole night (4 hours) was nothing but signing autographs. In talking with him, I asked him what this must be like, and he provided some pretty poignant words. He was used to it. In fact, when I asked him if any players felt differently, he said that some like it and some hate it, but they all do it. I asked him if his autograph changes based on volume, and he said that he does shorten some of it sometimes to get to more people, but the basic elements stay the same. He said it was common practice. Because Adrian Peterson was at the party as well, I used him as an example – especially in the way that people talk about his autograph being inconsistent. Ponder said that Peterson signs more than anyone, but has done it so much that everything looks the same.

This autograph was about 900 of 1500 he signed:

I was pretty shocked.

In 2013 I talked to a family friend who is a handwriting expert for a local check fraud division of the police. It was in regards to an article I was writing, and he confirmed Ponder’s explanation. Certain things about a person’s signature never change, including internal letter shape, slant, pressure, etc. The content of an autograph or signature can change, but the athlete has to make a conscious decision to change something, which can happen. Once that change happens, they need to stick with it to perfect it. They rarely go back and forth during a certain period of time. Its how they can verify criminal activity in forging checks.

Based on these off the cuff explanations, I really don’t believe any of this crap about laziness or volume. Players can change their autograph all they want, but to see variations of the same signature with different slant, start/stop points, and pressure will likely never happen, no matter how much the volume they are signing. They may sign AG#21 instead of Adam Gellman 21, but it will be a consistent pattern from previous iterations of their signature. Rarely does someone blow it up and start over. They cant, because its such a part of their life.

At the National convention, Topps said that they have always made it a point to witness all signatures first hand, but don’t always get to the 100% mark because it isn’t feasible. You can see that they have the best track record in this sense.

So – how can you avoid it?

1. Trust autographs you know are signed in front of the company – products like Inception in FB are signed practically 100% at the rookie premiere, with the company reps standing over the players. Same thing with Prestige on card, and Elite on card.
2. ALWAYS compare against other certified autographs you know to be real in a side by side fashion. It’s the truest sense of an autograph. Look at the shape of the letters, and try to find common points.
3. If something changes in a signature, wait to buy until you see it show up in other products. This doesn’t mean its legit, it just means that its not isolated. Isolated changes are a huge red flag.
4. Ask! Many of the message boards have people who spend hours a day pouring over cards to find the ones they want. At this point, I think I am better at identifying Peterson autographs than PSA or JSA. Just saying – I know my shit. There are other people out there just like me.

Again, everything in this article is just my opinion, and I encourage you all to not take me at face value. Do your own research and prove me to be wrong. I WANT TO BE WRONG, but my confidence has been shaken as of late.

4 thoughts on “Penning the Hobby: Can You Trust Your Favorite Player Anymore?

  1. Great breakdown, and nice tips. I never really noticed it until I started looking for a Tyrann Mathieu Auto. It’s almost like one person signed with Panini and another with Topps & Leaf.

  2. Good article. I’m always bothered when I see fake autographs on eBay and at shows. Is it rude to inform a dealer at a card show that they’re selling a fake Rookie Premiere autograph card? Forgers suck!

  3. First, I find your column to be a needed brutally honest service that this hobby needs. On the subject of unethical autograph practices, it is a wake-up call for ALL autograph collectors who love that segment of the hobby, but are vulnerable to it’s pure volume of product. Time to study your albums, displays, and plastic mountains of autos. This is my favorite part of collecting still, yet the education is appreciated.

  4. I have felt this way for a long time and agree with your points. I do not collect autos, because you never know. I am a vintage guy and do not worry about highend autos.

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