Published: Sept. 27, 2016

Associate Professor of Communication, Sarah FieldsWhat do Tiger Woods' legal troubles have to do with you? More than you might think.

In her latest book, Game Faces: Sports Celebrity and the Laws of Reputation, Associate Professor of Communication Sarah Fields explores legal cases brought forward by athletes like Joe Montana, Tiger Woods and Tony Twist, and the legal ramifications of the perceived misuse and misrepresentation of their identities. CU Denver asked Fields about her new book and the issues and cases shaping the world of celebrities, identity and privacy.

CU Denver: What interested you about sports celebrities?

Fields: Sports celebrities have a relationship with the press that they didn't always have. In the past, the press knew that sports figures might be involved in sordid business, but they wouldn't report on it. For example they knew Mickey Mantle was an alcoholic, and even drunk during games, but they didn't share that.

A sports figure as a celebrity did not really happen until cable TV and 24-hour coverage. At that point the media had to get cutthroat and competitive to fill timeslots and draw viewers. They evolved to meet a different world and a new market.

CU Denver: You touch on several well-known figures in your book. How did you select them?

Fields: I focused on cases that were most significant in the scope of sports celebrities and identity. One case I looked at, Curtis Publishing Co. v. Wally Butts, was instrumental in expanding the definition for public figures. In the case, the Saturday Evening Post published an article accusing Butts, athletic director of the University of Georgia, of conspiring to fix a game with Bear Bryant, head coach for the University of Alabama. The case went to the Supreme Court, where for the first time, public figures were defined as including persons beyond political figures.

This is important since private citizens are able to better protect themselves in cases of defamation or where privacy is violated. Private citizens just have to prove that the allegations were false and their image was damaged. It is more difficult for public figures, as it has to be proved that the item in question was created with malice, or that the truth was intentionally disregarded.

CU Denver: How else are sports celebrities using the law to protect their images?

Book cover for "Game Faces" by Sarah FieldsFields: You often see companies create commemorative coins after a big sporting event, and this coin might use the image of a celebrity. When Tiger Woods won his first Masters Tournament, a company tried to create a coin with his face on it. Essentially they were profiting off his image without his permission. ETW, a company Woods created to keep track of who was using his image, got an injunction, and a coin was never produced.

However, when sports painter Rick Rush produced a series of prints following that same Masters victory, Woods lost the lawsuit. The courts ruled that the prints are art protected under the First Amendment. Even though the image was of Woods, it was deemed transformed enough that it was art.

CU Denver: That doesn't make sense. Both situations used Woods' image, but had different outcomes. It seems convoluted.

Fields: It is. We have an inherent tension between the First Amendment and the definition of art and speech—which is unclear. Plus we are a capitalistic society. We want to sell stuff, and things with celebrity images sell. You get away with it until someone stops you.

In addition, having celebrity status helps athletes, actors, actresses and others profit off of their own images. So on the one hand, celebrities desperately need the press to be a celebrity. You're not famous unless someone is paying attention to you. On the other hand we frequently see interviews where celebrities complain about their lack of privacy. You want people to pay attention to you, and you don't want them to pay attention to you.

CU Denver: What do you see as the central conclusion of your book?

Fields: Legally, the laws of reputation continue to evolve and the courts really do examine specific lawsuits on a case-by-case basis. However, more broadly, in the 21st century we are part of the consumer culture that creates the need for the laws of reputation. Yet we are also potential public figures who might need those laws to protect ourselves.

Image, reputation and identity are all intensely personal things, and no matter how much we share publicly, we all want to control that image–whether it be to protect our dignity, our self-image, or our financial interests. In the end, if we are frustrated with how others use our image, we must turn to the courts and trust that they will find the balance between the First Amendment and our individual rights of reputation.

CU Denver: What impact has this had on you?

Fields: While I was writing the conclusion, I realized I had been critiquing all of these entities—whether it was a magazine, artist, or even a brewer—that were profiting off the images of these people. I realized I am doing the same thing. I am confident everything I am doing is legal, but it does benefit me professionally. Having worked on this for so many years, I am very conscious of my own privacy. I always saw these laws as protecting me from others, but now I am potentially one of those others.

Originally published by Steve Barcus in CU Today, July 18, 2016.