Retired NFL Players, Union Meet In Federal Court

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A dispute between retired NFL players and their union heads to federal court Monday for a trial about money. More than 2,000 former players filed a class-action lawsuit against the NFL Players Association charging that the union breached a contract that would've supplied the players with millions of dollars in licensing revenue.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Retired pro football players and their union disagree - again. The two sides have fought bitterly over pension issues and disability payments. Today, a trial begins in Federal Court in San Francisco to determine if the union broke a promise to pay former NFL players tens of millions of dollars from licensing deals. NPR's Tom Goldman has the story.

TOM GOLDMAN: In recent times retired NFL players have presented a less than rosy view of life after football, paltry pensions, sometimes no financial health for crippling disabilities. But now they say their union has committed in football terms its most grievous personal foul.

Mr. RON KATZ (Attorney, Co-Chair, Sports Law): I think economically it's the most important issue because this union it gets about a hundred million dollars of free cash flow a year from their licensing activities. These 2,056 men have not received one penny.

GOLDMAN: Attorney Ron Katz is representing those 2,000 plus NFL retirees in a class action lawsuit against the NFL Players Association and its marketing wing Players Inc. Katz says the case is based on a very simple premise.

Mr. KATZ: We signed the contract, we didn't get paid.

GOLDMAN: The contract in question is called a Group Licensing Authorization - GLA. The 2,000 plus plaintiffs in the case signed GLA so they'd get paid when the images of six or more present or former NFL players are used in commercials, video games, collector cards and the like. Much like the game of football the language of the GLAs is team-oriented. It's says the money generated by licensing will be divided between all participating players who signed GLAs. This "share the wealth" concept will be a major point of contention in the trial. Jeffrey Kessler is the lawyer for the NFLPA.

Mr. JEFFREY KESSLER (Lawyer, NFLPA): The claim of this case are an attempt by a tidy group of retired players who frankly have a long standing vendetta against the NFL Players Union to get a share of money that belongs to the active NFL players for their licensing.

GOLDMAN: Active players, says Kessler are responsible for the many millions generated through licensing, and the GLAs do not require them to share with retired players. But reading from a GLA signed in 2002 by one of the plaintiff's there's no language supporting what Kessler says.

(Soundbite of the football game)

Unidentified Man: Welcome to another game of Madden NFL. I'm (unintelligible) bringing you a breakdown of today's match up.

GOLDMAN: The retired players also say the union actively tried to deny payments. Electronic Arts, the company that makes the popular Madden NFL video games pays the union an estimated 25 to $30 million a year in licensing fees. The plaintiffs have emails that they say show union officials told EA to scramble images of retired players in the Madden game, so those players wouldn't have to be paid. Kessler acknowledges the scrambling, but says it was done to protect retired players whose images hadn't been paid for. Former Buffalo Bills defensive back Jeff Nixon regrets having to sue his union, but Nixon, one of the plaintiff, says it's important.

Mr. JEFF NIXON (Former Football Player, Buffalo Bills, NFL): When we signed these group licensing agreements we've looked at to this the same the way the active players do. You can be a benchwarmer, you can be a superstar, but you're still going to get paid because you're part of this team. And we really thought that we are part of the team, no we're finding out we weren't. We were actually a burden to them.

GOLDMAN: Nixon is one of the many former players hoping to try a leads to reforms at the NFLPA. The union is looking for new leadership after the recent death of its controversial executive director Gene Upshaw. Tom Goldman, NPR News.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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