Trial begins for Eli Manning's memorabilia fraud suit

<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nfl/players/6760/" data-ylk="slk:Eli Manning">Eli Manning</a> is at the center of a lawsuit involving allegedly fraudulent memorabilia. (AP)
Eli Manning is at the center of a lawsuit involving allegedly fraudulent memorabilia. (AP)

Jury selection is scheduled to begin Monday in a lawsuit accusing New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning and Giants equipment staff of conspiring to pass off fake “game-used” helmets as authentic memorabilia.

Why are Eli Manning and the Giants on trial?

Memorabilia dealer Eric Inselberg filed suit in 2014 charging that two “game-used” helmets that he and two other memorabilia dealers bought were not actually used in any games. The plaintiffs charged that photo matching could not find evidence that the helmets were ever used in any games.

Manning and the Giants have denied the claims, countering that it’s Inselberg who has trafficked in fake memorabilia. Attorneys for Manning have called the suit “inflammatory and baseless.”

What’s the significance of “game-used” memorabilia?

Game-used equipment, as you probably gathered from the name, was used in an actual NFL game, and thus carries far more value than, say, a Giants-logo helmet you buy off the shelf at your local sporting goods store. Of course, absent seeing Eli run off the field and hand you the helmet himself, you wouldn’t know for certain that what you’re getting is actually “game-used.” (Eli also graciously provides many game-used balls, free of charge, to various NFL secondaries throughout the season.)

Authentication services seek to give customers the peace of mind that what they’re getting is actually game-used, providing certificates of authenticity and holograms to attest to the on-field origins of memorabilia, but again, there’s an element of good faith involved – you have to believe the team itself is pipelining equipment directly from the field. This lawsuit is questioning whether the Giants were playing by the rules in providing that equipment.

What’s the basis of the lawsuit?

Inselberg’s photographic experts compared the helmets to images from games throughout the appropriate seasons, and were unable to find matches. Thus, the plaintiffs contend, the Giants and Manning were trying to pass off other helmets as “game-used.”

The Giants counter that simply matching photos to helmets is an insufficient method of determining authenticity, since helmets can be reconditioned after use but before being turned over to memorabilia dealers.

Would there happen to be any suspicious emails?

Why, yes there would. Back in April 2017, Inselberg’s attorneys filed documents that included emails between Manning and Giants equipment manager Joseph Skiba; one email from Manning asks Skiba to obtain “2 helmets that can pass as game used.” Inselberg’s attorneys point to that message as an indication of a pattern of fraud. The attorneys further noted that they would introduce evidence at trial that would “show that Manning engaged in a pattern of knowingly providing items to Steiner Sports that he misrepresented as having been game-used when he knew they were not.”

However, Manning has denied the charges. His attorneys say that the email was meant to get Skiba to provide game-used helmets that would, in fact, be game-used. “Manning never instructed Joe Skiba to create any fraudulent memorabilia,” Manning’s attorney Robert Lawrence wrote in court filings. “Rather, Manning believed that if he asked Joe Skiba for his helmets, he received his game-used helmets and that the helmets he received from Skiba were his game-used helmets.” Lawrence also charged that Inselberg has obtained other game-used Giants equipment without permission.

Will this settle?

Every case could settle, but the outsize personalities involved in this one seem to suggest it’s going to trial. The memorabilia dealer holds at least one powerful card in the email, while Manning has his reputation to protect. Manning could be called to testify in the coming days, which would make for some fascinating courtroom drama. More on this as it develops.
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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.

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