Bill Radovich, 87; NFL Star Blacklisted After Court Case


Bill Radovich, a former pro football lineman and the first player to take the NFL to court over the right to play for the team of his choice, has died. He was 87.

Radovich died Wednesday in Newport Beach after a brief bout with cancer. His death was announced Monday by USC, where he was a letterman from 1935 through ’37.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Mar. 14, 2002 FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 14, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Radovich obituary--In an obituary of NFL player Bill Radovich in Tuesday’s California section, the name of former Detroit Lions owner Fred Mandel Jr. was misspelled.

A tenacious guard and linebacker who played at 5 feet 8, 220 pounds, Radovich was an all-star for the Detroit Lions in 1939 and 1945. But he is best remembered for his legal wranglings with the NFL.

“Every sports law course starts with the Radovich case,” said Richard Berthelsen, general counsel for the NFL Players Assn. “That’s probably one of the first things students learn when they’re studying the history of professional football.”


After playing for Detroit from 1938 through ’41, Radovich entered the Navy and stayed there until the end of World War II. He was 30 when he rejoined the Lions for the 1945 season and, as he was nearing the end of his career, he wanted to earn as much as he could right away. Also, he wanted to be closer to his father, who was gravely ill in Los Angeles.

In 1946, he informed the Lions he wanted to be traded to a West Coast team, preferably the L.A. Rams, or at least earn more money so he could fly back to see his father more often. Lion owner Fred Madel Jr. refused both requests.

“The little creep said I’d either play in Detroit or I wouldn’t play anywhere,” Radovich told the New York Times in 1994. “He also told me if I tried to play in the [All-America Football Conference], he would put me on a blacklist for five years.”

Like many established NFL players, Radovich was lured to the new league, which offered to double many players’ salaries. He signed with the Los Angeles Dons, playing for them in 1946 and ’47; he earned $300 for each game in the 12-game season.


When the All-America Conference folded, Radovich tried to join the San Francisco Clippers--who played in the NFL-affiliated Pacific Coast Football League--as a player-coach. That’s when he learned he had been blacklisted.

In 1949, Radovich sued the NFL and suffered a setback when the case was dismissed by a lower court. Six years later, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 6-3 decision, ruled in favor of Radovich, saying all professional sports--except baseball--were subject to antitrust laws. The court ordered that the case be retried.

At the behest of his attorney, Maxwell Keith, Radovich reluctantly dropped the case and accepted a $42,500 settlement from the NFL.

The groundbreaking Supreme Court decision had ramifications that extended beyond football. Marvin Miller, former executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Assn., was encouraged by the Radovich case when his association first challenged baseball’s reserve clause in the late 1960s. After all, the court had said baseball’s long-standing exemption from antitrust laws was “unreasonable, illogical and inconsistent.”


“It took a lot of guts to take on the NFL back then,” Radovich told the Chicago Tribune in 1992. “There was no union, no players association, no legal fund. And we didn’t make very much money. It cost me a lot, but I knew I was right.”

After his playing career, Radovich worked as a position coach in the Canadian Football League, then settled in Los Angeles. He was a big supporter of USC football and a dedicated member of the Trojan Football Alumni Club. He kept his job as an executive at Washington Iron Works well into his 80s.

“When he was playing football, he was tough and never gave up,” said Al Abajian, who played for the Trojans 15 years after Radovich. “He was a scratcher.... He wasn’t afraid of anybody until his dying day.”

Abajian became a widower in the early 1980s; Radovich never married. The two were former Trojans, as well as Newport Beach neighbors, and maintained a good friendship over the years. They met for lunch at least twice a week.


Abajian said Radovich was diagnosed with cancer about a month before he died.

“He never whimpered,” Abajian said. “Never made a sound. One of the last things he said to me was, ‘Thanks for being such a good friend.’”

Radovich is survived by a brother, Walt, and a sister, Gloria Kaye Clinton, both of Palm Springs.

Funeral services will be Thursday at St. Sava Church in San Gabriel.