On Sunday, January 23, 2022, Tom Brady threw a 55-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Mike Evans who, after scoring, tossed the ball into the stands. A week later, Brady made the surprising announcement that he was retiring from professional football. Because of Brady’s announced retirement, the ball was not just tied to Brady’s 86th playoff touchdown (a seemingly unpassable record), but it became the ball used for Brady’s final career touchdown. On March 12, 2022, the football was at auction for $518,628 (including Buyer’s Premium). Then, on March 13, Brady tweeted that he was un-retiring, and was planning to play for Tampa Bay in the 2022 NFL season. Sports memorabilia experts have speculated that Brady’s un-retirement resulted in a precipitous drop in the value of the football.
Not surprisingly, there has been discussion about the legal rights and responsibilities of the auctioneer, the seller, and the buyer under these circumstances. In some of these discussions, there has been speculation as to whether, under the Uniform Commercial Code, the buyer could reject the football as nonconforming goods, or, if the buyer had taken possession, whether the buyer could revoke acceptance of the football as nonconforming goods. I have also even seen speculation about whether the auction house somehow misrepresented the nature or character of the football. I don’t find these assessments, or associated theories, compelling. First, at the time of the auction, the football was exactly as described. And, because Tom Brady hasn’t yet thrown another touchdown, the football is, today, exactly as described at the time of the auction. So, there was certainly no misrepresentation by the auction house, and to suggest otherwise is just silly. Also, the UCC doesn’t afford the buyer the opportunity to reject acceptance of, or to revoke acceptance of, conforming goods. And, as of today, the football constitutes conforming goods. Moreover, because it appears that the Bidder Terms and Conditions did not reserve title in the seller until payment was made by the buyer, by operation of Section 2-328 of the UCC, the buyer owns the football (which is subject to possessory liens in favor of the seller and the auction house), and is obligated to pay the hammer price and the buyer’s premium.
So, how should we look at this situation from a legal perspective. To start, it is important to recognize that every auction transaction involves risk, and each auction transaction may involve risk that is unique to the specific transaction. The first question to be asked, then, is – What was the risk associated with the auction purchase of Tom Brady’s final career touchdown football? The second question might be – Did the auction house guarantee that Tom Brady would not un-retire?
The provenance of the football was well documented, and, therefore, the risk of whether this was THE FOOTBALL was pretty well covered. Plus, the auction house warranted authenticity (i.e., that this was THE FOOTBALL). So, what was the risk? The risk, from a value perspective, was that Brady might un-retire (which he has announced) and that he might throw another touchdown (which he hasn’t done yet, and may never do). Nothing in the Bidder Terms and Conditions, or in the UCC, made the auction house the guarantor of Tom Brady’s retirement. It’s as simple as that. I would argue that the value of the football vis-à-vis Tom Brady’s retirement status was a risk assumed by the buyer. In this regard, hindsight suggests that a call from the buyer to Lloyd’s of London (or some other provider) to explore customized insurance products might have been prudent.
How this is handled among the parties may, largely, be a business decision. From a legal perspective, however, with the exception of an action by the seller and/or the auction house to enforce the buyer’s payment obligation, any litigation might be premature and unsustainable.
THIS ARTICLE IS FOR INFORMATION AND DISCUSSION PURPOSES ONLY, AND IS NOT INTENDED AS, AND CANNOT BE RELIED ON AS, LEGAL ADVICE. NO ATTORNEY-CLIENT RELATIONSHIP IS INTENDED OR ESTABLISHED. SPECIFIC QUESTIONS SHOULD BE REFERRED TO AN ATTORNEY OF YOUR OWN CHOOSING.