NFL union takes hit in court

Johnson is a Times staff writer.

A federal jury in San Francisco on Monday ordered the NFL Players Assn. to pay $28.1 million in damages to retired players after determining that the union had ignored contracts covering reimbursement for use of their images in such things as video games and sports trading cards.

The civil court award included $7.1 million in actual damages and $21 million in punitive damages.

“If you do the math, it comes out to $13,000 per class member,” said Ron Katz, the Bay Area attorney who represented 2,062 former NFL players, including 17 Hall of Fame members. “I think the former players are going to be very satisfied.”

However, the lawyers and judge must still decide how to divvy up the award, some of which will go toward paying attorneys.

Herb Adderley, the former Green Bay Packers great and Hall of Fame member who initiated the class-action lawsuit more than two years ago, said Monday that the financial award will “help a lot of guys, and, hopefully, change the union’s ways of taking advantage of the retired players.”


Richard Berthelsen, the union’s acting executive director, said outside court that the union would ask the trial judge, U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup, to toss out the verdict. If that fails, the union intends to appeal.

“It’s an unjust verdict, and we are confident it will be overturned,” union lawyer Jeffrey Kessler said.

The two-week trial that ended Monday when the 10-member jury returned a unanimous verdict steered clear of the highly charged disagreement over pension, disability and medical benefits that is pitting many NFL retirees against the union and the football league.

Early in the trial, Alsup ordered former players and their attorneys to focus solely on the marketing agreements. Alsup also instituted a gag order that prohibited former players and the union from discussing the case.

Adderley and other former players alleged that union leadership, including Gene Upshaw, the late executive director, was willfully ignoring the contracts that many retired players had signed with the anticipation of sharing in the wealth created when sports marketers use the images of six or more current or retired NFL players in video games, sports apparel, trading cards and other sports marketing applications.

Adderley, who wept when the verdict was read, said that former players uncovered a 2001 letter from a union executive that directed Electronic Arts Inc. to scramble images of retired players to avoid royalty payments for the popular “Madden NFL” video game.

“If you look at the 1976 Green Bay Packers in that game, you’ll know that the only left cornerback that year had to be Herb Adderley, but they scrambled my face and took the number off of my jersey,” Adderley said. “Yet, they had my correct height, weight and years of experience.”

Bruce Laird, a former Baltimore Colts player who testified about the two licensing agreements he signed in previous years, said the verdict “speaks volumes about what retired players have felt for years -- that the players’ union claim to be representing former players is an absolute lie, and might even be found to be criminal. It’s now been proven in a federal courthouse that there was misconduct in the union.”

Katz said that language in the counts that jurors found the union to be guilty of included such phrases as “malicious and oppressive conduct with evil motive,” and “conduct that was outrageous and grossly fraudulent.”

“I couldn’t have said it better myself,” Adderley said.

The jury’s verdict “opens the door for Congress to revisit the many wrongful denials of disability benefits,” said former Minnesota Vikings player Brent Boyd, who wasn’t part of the class-action lawsuit but has been lobbying in Washington for a federal investigation into how the union and league treat former players.

Bernie Parrish, a former Cleveland Browns player who initially was named as a plaintiff, described the jury verdict as “just the beginning.”


The Associated Press contributed to this report.