Caleb Pressley, former UNC football player, pays ‘tribute’ to NCAA with T-shirt line

Former UNC quarterback Caleb Pressley (16) looks for a receiver during the Tar Heels' spring football practice on Wednesday April 11, 2012 at Navy Field in Chapel Hill.
Former UNC quarterback Caleb Pressley (16) looks for a receiver during the Tar Heels' spring football practice on Wednesday April 11, 2012 at Navy Field in Chapel Hill. News & Observer File Photo

Caleb Pressley found himself this week in Gatlinburg, Tenn., where he was “chilling,” he said, and spending at least a small part of his time wondering whether Mark Emmert might sue him at some point in the relatively near future.

The thought of a potential legal fight is intriguing to Pressley, a former North Carolina backup quarterback turned student assistant coach and self-proclaimed Supervisor of Morale, a position he created and one that no longer exists.

“If he sues me,” Pressley said during a recent phone interview of the president of the NCAA, “I would be interested to see what would happen to his organization that he is the leader of. Yeah, I would be very interested to see what would happen.”

The whole thing is about T-shirts, at least on the surface. There’s a deeper meaning, too, though, and Pressley – whose sense of humor could be described as unique – is attempting to create awareness by having some fun with college athletes’ inability to profit off of their image.

Pressley, who graduated from UNC in May, is working with a website called barstooldixie.com. He tours the southeast in a large van, going to SEC football games and amid his recent travels the idea for a line of T-shirts came to him.

Pressley was going for something, he said, that he hoped would “raise awareness” about the fact that college athletes don’t profit when their jerseys are sold, or when their image is used to promote college athletics.

“What will make someone understand the fact that jerseys are being sold for $90 and players are not seeing a cent off of it?” Pressley asked. “I said, well, maybe we’ll sell a Mark Emmert T-shirt for $25 and he won’t see a cent off it.”

Pressley calls it, simply, the “Likeness” line. There are 16 shirts. Many feature cartoon images that bear a striking resemblance – a likeness, if you will – to current college football players.

Then there’s the shirt with a cartoon drawing of Emmert. On the shirt, a smiling Emmert – his hair just so – is standing in front of large stacks of cash, his hands extended as if to say, “Show me the money.” There’s a logo that looks like the NCAA logo, except it says, in the NCAA font, “Likeness.”

“I don’t know Mark Emmert on a personal basis,” Pressley said, “but I know him from afar and one thing that’s clear is that this guy is a huge proponent of making money off people’s likeness. So I was like, what can I do to pay this guy a tribute?

“Maybe I’ll make a T-shirt of him and make money off his likeness.”

The shirts Pressley and his site are selling go for $25. It costs $12.50 to make the shirts, he said, so each shirt nets $12.50 in profit. Profits from the Emmert shirt, Pressley said, “are going to myself.”

“Because I don’t want to disrespect” Emmert, he said. “I thought that’s what he would do.”

But the profits from the other shirts – the ones with the images that bear a striking resemblance to some current college football players? Pressley said he has rough a plan of what to do with that money.

“We’re saving the money and we’re going to give them to people that we feel like are deserving,” Pressley said. “I don’t know who that would be. But I think maybe down the line we’ll figure out who’s deserving of the money (off) those T-shirts.”

One shirt features a football player, a quarterback, wearing a maroon No. 15 jersey with the words, “Dak the Ripper.” Perhaps not coincidentally, Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott wears No. 15 and often can be seen on the field in Mississippi State maroon.

Another shirt features a player in a red No. 27 jersey in mid-stride, cradling a football firmly in his left arm. “Young Chubb,” it says underneath the cartoon image, and it’s probably not a stretch to suggest the shirt references Georgia running back Nick Chubb, who happens to wear No. 27.

“Every T-shirt sold, that’s $12.50 that I will later donate to a person if I can figure out anybody in the world that might be deserving of that” money, Pressley said. “I’m sure it will come to me.

“It might take me one to two to three or four years – you never know how that stuff works.”

College athletes haven’t been allowed to profit off of their likeness, or from the sale of jerseys that display, for instance, their uniform number. The antitrust lawsuit Ed O’Bannon filed against the NCAA in 2009 challenged that issue, and others, at the heart of the NCAA’s amateurism model.

A federal judge eventually ruled schools could establish trust funds to enable athletes to share in revenue generated by use of their name, image and likeness. The long-term implications of the case still are unclear, though, and athletes aren’t being paid directly for use of their likeness.

That is where Pressley’s “Likeness” line comes in. Amid the obvious joke of it all he hopes his message his coming through, too.

“I was next-door neighbors with Ryan Switzer,” Pressley said, referring to UNC’s junior receiver. “He’s one of my best friends. You see (Switzer’s) No. 3 jerseys being sold. They just resold them in a different type of style. You can buy a No. 3 jersey in a black or a blue Carolina. Those are $90.

“I bought one myself. He doesn’t see a dime. He doesn’t see a dime from those.”

Pressley said he ran his shirt idea past a lawyer and someone familiar with NCAA compliance rules. He said he was advised that the shirts depicting athletes wouldn’t violate any laws or NCAA rules – though he’s nonetheless expecting cease-and-desist letters.

“They have to send one to keep all their players eligible because that’s how the NCAA, that’s how it works,” Pressley said, referring to any individual schools that might send him a letter. “They’ve got to send a cease and desist to keep everyone eligible.”

During his legal research, Pressley said he did learn that Emmert could sue him over the shirt with the illustrated Emmert standing in front of the piles of cash. It’s a risk Pressley is willing to take.

The “Likeness” line launched late last week. Pressley said he sold more than 100 shirts over the weekend.

The SEC football tour with his website took him to Knoxville, Tenn., last weekend, and after a quick visit to Gatlinburg, another road trip, this one to Baton Rouge, La., awaited. Each stop brings another chance to sell his product and spread his message.

He wonders if he’ll hear from Emmert or one of his lawyers.

“I’m just taking my chances that he won’t sue me for his likeness,” Pressley said. “He obviously likes the whole make money off of likeness thing, so I don’t think he would care.”