Contracts, Sports

On Remand: Museums Will Take The Shirt Off Your Back, But Will They Return It?

(c) Image by Juri H. Chinchilla.

With the snow melting in Sochi, “On Remand” looks back to one of the greatest moments in Olympic history. Tomorrow is the 34th anniversary of the “Miracle on Ice.”

In February 1980, the XIII Olympic Winter Games were underway in Lake Placid, New York. But a little-known group of hockey players had been practicing together for months, skating themselves to exhaustion learning coach Herb Brooks’s new, fast, and grueling style of play. Most of the players on Team USA were barely old enough to order a beer, and hardly any had played hockey professionally. In a few months, several would be playing in the NHL. But on February 22, they were underdogs against a Soviet team that had won the gold in every Olympic contest since 1956 — except for 1960, when the Americans stood atop the podium. A week before the 1980 games started, the Soviets had trounced the Americans, 10-3, in an exhibition game.

“Unless the ice melts” or some team “performs a miracle,” a sports writer quipped, the Soviets would win the gold medal again in 1980. And, for most of the U.S.S.R. versus U.S. game, that prediction appeared accurate. But with 10 minutes left in the game, Mike Eruzione, Team USA’s captain, scored a goal from thirty feet, putting the Americans up 4-3. They never relinquished the lead. As the clock ran out, ABC broadcaster Al Michaels delivered his now iconic play-by-play

11 seconds. You’ve got 10 seconds. The countdown going on right now. Morrow, up to Silk. 5 seconds left in the game. Do you believe in miracles? YES! Unbelievable.

Then silence from the Soviets, Michaels, and his broadcasting partner, Ken Dryden, as the crowd cheered. Perhaps Dryden, who reportedly had taken the Canadian bar exam the day before, was still dazed from the exam.

After defeating Finland in its last game to win the gold, Team USA disbanded, many heading to their deferred NHL careers. One of those players was Dave Christian. While Dave was away playing for the Winnepeg Jets, his father Bill, a member of the 1960 U.S. gold-medal-winning hockey team, was busy filling hockey stick orders at Christian Brothers Hockey Company in Warroad, Minnesota, just south of the Canadian border. Unfortunately, hockey sticks weren’t the only orders the senior Christian filled, according to reports by WCCO and the Star Tribune. In 1981, the Hockey Hall of Fame called Bill Christian and asked to display the hockey jerseys he and Dave had worn in the Olympics. Bill agreed, sent the jerseys, and received a note (excerpt here) from the Hall thanking him for his “donation.” The note, informal and personal in tone, closed with a further request:

One other thing, Bill, which I almost forgot. If you have 8×10 photos of yourself and Dave in uniform . . . which you could loan to us . . . it would also be appreciated.

The distinction between a donation and a loan, perhaps an afterthought in 1981, would end up clipping the Christians.

Thirty years later, Bill, then 73 and considering his legacy, and Dave, who had never explicitly agreed to provide his jersey to the Hall, decided to call in their loan and reclaim their jerseys. The Hall refused, contending that the jerseys had been donated “in a legally effective manner.” The Hall’s response blindsided the Christians. They had never intended to permanently donate the jerseys and did not consider the thank-you note a legally binding contract. Although both the Hall and the Christians threatened legal action, it appears no lawsuits were filed. As of last week, the Christian jerseys remained on display at the Hall of Fame in Toronto.

The Christians are not the first to be tripped up by the distinction between a loan and a donation. As ATL readers know, law students make that mistake frequently. The occasionally blurry line between donations and loans has led athletes (or their heirs) to seek return of memorabilia. As reported in the New York Times, where the paper trail is murky or non-existent, the museum can lose the artifact. The San Diego Hall of Champions recently lost two key artifacts this way. After a legal battle, the museum lost Ted Williams’ 1949 MVP plaque, which Williams’ daughter sold for $300,000. Then, Don Larsen asked the museum to return the uniform he wore while pitching a perfect game in the 1956 World Series. The museum agreed without a fight; Larsen’s generosity to the museum and an insufficient paper trail eroded its resolve. With the $756,000 from the sale of the jersey, Larsen planned to fund his grandson’s college education. (For $756K, that kid could go to college and law school, and have enough money left over for an LL.M.!)

Years ago, sports artifacts were exchanged with a handshake. Not surprisingly, most museums now have more robust systems. The Hockey Hall of Fame now has a written policy that requires signed Donation Agreements, and specifies that donations are “unconditional gifts.” Donors must also agree to relinquish their rights “absolutely, unconditionally and forever.” Are those contract terms or lyrics to a cheesy ballad?

Miracle on Ice jerseys that are not locked up absolutely, unconditionally, and forever may fetch a fortune for the men who wore them. Last year, game-winning goal scorer Mike Eruzione sold his jersey and other Olympic game gear for approximately $1.3 million. And if you missed out on Eruzione’s jersey, you have until 11pm EST tonight to bid on the jersey of Phil Verchota, a forward on the 1980 team. As for the Christians, their stated motivation for seeking the return of their jerseys — to pass them on to their children — was more about legacies than bank accounts. But for now, and possibly forever, those jerseys are locked in a display case at the Hall of Fame. How will the story end? That depends. Do you believe in miracles?

Samantha Beckett (not her real name) is an attorney with more than ten years of experience working in Biglaw. When not traveling back in time, she is most likely billing it. Her writing has been featured in state and federal courts across the nation and in the inboxes of countless clients, colleagues, and NSA analysts. She can be reached at

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