Improper use of UNC player's image?

Associated Press  |  Last updated July 15, 2013
North Carolina athletic officials have ordered a company that makes designer mouth guards to stop using a Tar Heels basketball player to promote its brand. The university has sent a cease-and-desist letter to Iceberg Guards about rising senior guard Leslie McDonald, who until recently had been listed on the company's website as a user of its products. It's the second off-court issue involving a UNC player the school has faced this offseason, following leading scorer P.J. Hairston's June arrest on a misdemeanor drug charge while driving a rental vehicle. That vehicle was linked to a man with a criminal history - who also has a business connection to one of the founders of Iceberg Holdings LLC. NCAA rules generally prohibit athletes from endorsing or promoting a company or product. ''We sent a cease-and-desist letter to Iceberg regarding Leslie McDonald,'' said Steve Kirschner, UNC's senior associate athletic director for communications. ''They took his name off their site as a customer last week.'' North Carolina has spent much of the past three years dealing with off-field issues that began with an NCAA investigation of the football program. Now the school is trying to determine whether there are issues with its men's basketball program. Kirschner said the school has no official relationship with Iceberg to provide mouth guards or services to UNC athletes, nor with the two men - Spencer Howard of Durham and Lee Gause of New York - who formed Iceberg Holdings LLC and are listed on incorporation documents filed with the North Carolina secretary of state's office. Howard is an oral surgeon who graduated from UNC's School of Dentistry, while Gause is a dentist who earned his undergraduate degree from UNC. A request by The Associated Press for a copy of the letter under the state's public records law hasn't yet been granted. The school has declined an AP request to interview McDonald, who made at least one post on social media about wearing a Tar Heel-themed Iceberg mouth guard in a game last season. Neither Howard nor Gause have responded to requests for comment over the past week. Howard also started a different business with Haydn Patrick ''Fats'' Thomas, who is now linked to rental cars driven by Hairston during a traffic stop in May and during his June arrest. David Ridpath, a former compliance officer at Marshall and Weber State, said schools can send a cease-and-desist letter to warn a business that using a college athlete in a promotion can jeopardize the player's eligibility. Now an associate professor of sports administration at Ohio University, Ridpath said those often-inadvertent cases typically amount only to a secondary violation. ''If the company complies (with the letter), it's usually a nonissue from there on out,'' Ridpath said. The NCAA sanctioned North Carolina last year for football players receiving improper benefits from people from outside the program. In that case, the NCAA said UNC should've done more to monitor its athletes on social media. On Feb. 21, two days after the Tar Heels won at Georgia Tech, a photographer whose work is featured on the official UNC athletics website tweeted a photo of McDonald wearing a distinctive mouth guard featuring the school logo as well as the argyle pattern that trims the team's uniforms. McDonald tweeted in response that it was ''made by Iceberg.'' Alex Gause, Lee's brother and a UNC graduate who works as a dentist in the same practice, tweeted the photographer and McDonald that the mouth guard ''looks great! Custom made via IcebergGuards 4 anyone who's curious.'' He also linked both his and his brother's Twitter feeds in the post. Lee Gause retweeted his brother's post. The school has declined to say how McDonald acquired the mouth guard. Iceberg's website shows customized mouth guards - including one endorsed by former UNC player Danny Green - ranging from $150 to as much as $1,500. Last week, UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham said the school is gathering information on potential improper conduct by student-athletes, though he didn't name any player specifically. His statement came a month after Hairston's arrest at a license checkpoint in Durham for misdemeanor marijuana possession. That was the second time in a month Hairston was stopped by authorities while driving a rented luxury SUV or late-model sports car. In both cases, rental records connected the vehicle to either Thomas' name or his home address in Durham. A review of the Twitter accounts of current and former UNC athletes show numerous friendly messages exchanged with Thomas, including by McDonald. Howard, the Durham oral surgeon listed on incorporation documents for Iceberg Holdings LLC, also formed a business corporation with Thomas called Kairobi Exotic Rentals and Transport Inc., according to filings with the North Carolina Secretary of State's office. Thomas was convicted in 2006 of a felony charge of accessing computers to defraud or obtain property, according to the Durham County clerk of court's office. He's facing pending drug charges as well as a charge of possession of a firearm by a felon from a December arrest, and has a hearing scheduled for next month. UNC coach Roy Williams issued a statement Monday saying Hairston - who returned for his junior season instead of entering the NBA draft - would face ''serious consequences'' following the arrest, including a potential suspension. Hairston has court hearings scheduled in August for his speeding citation as well as the drug charge. --- Follow Associated Press writer Michael Biesecker at Twitter.com/mbieseck and AP Basketball Writer Aaron Beard at Twitter.com/aaronbeardap.
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