In his high-profile suit against Ohio State, the ex-Buckeyes legend wants to return any financial damages he receives to the institution he's suing. Can he do that?

Chris Spielman loves Ohio State. So when the former Buckeyes football great filed a potentially ground-breaking lawsuit against his alma mater in July, he made an unusual promise: He vowed to return any money he might receive as a result of the suit to the OSU athletic department.

Spielman's legal skirmish over an Ohio State marketing program could have a big impact on how universities compensate former players for using their names and images. But Spielman's other big idea—his monetary vow—also might break some new ground. It's rare—and perhaps even unprecedented—for a plaintiff to return damages to the institution he or she is suing. “I can tell you I've never heard of this happening,” says Jon Coughlan, a lawyer with Kegler Brown Hill + Ritter in Columbus and a former disciplinary counsel for the Ohio Supreme Court. “I'm not saying it's never happened, but I've never heard of it, and I've been practicing over 35 years.”

Though odd, the idea seems acceptable, and there's no reason why a judge should shoot it down. “The judge's business is just to preside over the case, apply the law to the facts and be an impartial umpire,” says Coughlan, an expert on legal ethics. “What will happen later with the award shouldn't matter.”

Mark Weaver, a veteran litigator with Isaac Wiles in Columbus, likens Spielman's suit to a recent case involving pop singer Taylor Swift, who sought just $1 in damages in a lawsuit she filed against a DJ over whether he groped her at a meet-and-greet in Denver. “She was trying to make a point,” says Weaver, a former Ohio deputy attorney general who's defended Ohio State in the past. “Well, in this case, Chris Spielman still continues to support and revere Ohio State much like the rest of Buckeye Nation, but he similarly wants to make a point.”

Spielman's vow is just for his share of any potential award, not the damages other former players might receive.