nflpa retired players, nfl union retired players
Retired football player Herb Adderley,
playing for the Dallas Cowboys.

Retired NFL Players Win Lawsuit Against Union

November 11, 2008 02:56 PM
by Denis Cummings
Some 2,000 retired NFL players won a class action lawsuit filed against the NFLPA over the use of their images in video games.

Jury Rules For Retired Players

A federal jury awarded $28.1 million to retired NFL players Monday, finding that the NFL Players Association had violated contracts over the use of their images in video games, player cards and other products. The judgment includes $7.1 million in actual damages and $21 million in punitive damages.

The focus of the case was the NFLPA’s $35 million licensing contact with Electronic Arts Inc.’s “Madden NFL” video game series. Only current NFL players were paid under the deal, but the games included more than 100 “vintage” teams primarily made up of retired players. The players on vintage teams were not given names or detailed faces, but each player’s true identity was clear based on his position, talent, height and weight.

The retired players, led by former Packers and Cowboys cornerback Herb Adderley, claimed that this entitled them to a cut of the contract and accused the NFLPA of actively trying to exclude them from the contract. The key piece of evidence was a 2001 letter in which an NFLPA executive ordered EA to scramble images of retired players in attempt to avoid royalty payments.

The NFLPA claimed that there was little market for the images of retired players and that the $35 million was generated by the market for current players. The 10-member jury agreed, but it found that the NFLPA has nonetheless breached its duty to represent the interest of retired players.

The case is a small part of a larger clash between retired players and the NFLPA, which has focused on pension and disability plans. Many retired players believe that the NFLPA cares only about active players, and the former NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw occasionally said that he didn’t work for retired players.

The Adderley case will help the retired players advance their cause. By finding that the NFLPA does have a duty to represent retired players, the jury “opens the door for Congress to revisit the many wrongful denials of disability benefits,” said former Vikings lineman Brent Boyd to The Associated Press.

Background: Retired players and the NFLPA

The NFLPA has been heavily criticized for its treatment of retired players, especially those who retired before the granting of free agency and the drastic rise of salaries in 1993. Many of these older players have little money saved, and old football injuries make it difficult for some to find a job or buy insurance. These retired players rely on their NFL pension, which is often inadequate and pales in comparison to other leagues.

At the Super Bowl in 2007, a group of retired players led by Hall of Famers Mike Ditka and Joe DeLamielleure made the NFLPA’s treatment of retired players a national issue. The Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund took the issue to Congress, which held a hearing in June 2007 to discuss the disability plan.

At the hearing, the NFLPA said that just 317 of approximately 8,000 retired players receive disability aid. Players said the application process—which requires a great deal of paperwork, visits with NFL doctors and long waits—is designed to discourage them from applying. Retired guard Brent Boyd testified that his brain damage, caused by multiple concussions suffered while playing football, is not covered under the disability plan, saying that “the owners would not open that can of worms” by covering head injuries.

In November 2007, Chiefs guard Kyle Turley became the first active player to publicly criticize the union over the issue. Turley, Vikings center Matt Birk and several others donated $25,000 to the Gridiron Greats. Their criticism illustrated a rift within the union. “The walls are starting to break,” said Turley. “The active players are starting to catch on to things.”

In April, retired players and the NFLPA were again before Congress, which released a Congressional Research Service report to the public. It found that the NFLPA is not tracking the health of retired players, does not perform enough independent research on medical care policies, and has an unclear method to determine retirement plan funding. “Today's report validates every criticism we have raised about this system, and underscores the urgent need for reform,” said Boyd.

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