Football greats fight NFL with millions at stake

  • Article by: MIKE KASZUBA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 1, 2013 - 11:56 PM

Minnesota super lawyer Michael Ciresi successfully took on Big Tobacco and is now looking to slay another giant: the NFL.


Steve Richer, center, vice president of cinematography at NFL Films, prepares camera equipment for Super Bowl XXXV at the company's facility in Mount Laurel, N.J.

Photo: Daniel Hulshizer, Associated Press

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Minnesota super lawyer Michael Ciresi successfully took on Big Tobacco and is now looking to slay another giant: the National Football League.

In a case that could affect every former NFL player from Brett Favre to Carl Eller, Ciresi has entered a complicated legal fight to reject a $50 million proposed settlement over the NFL’s longtime commercial use of player names and images without compensation to those players. Part of the fight has centered on NFL Films, which owns more than 100 million feet of game film featuring grainy images of the league’s most iconic players and memorable games such as the 1967 “Ice Bowl” at Green Bay’s Lambeau Field.

While a federal judge has tentatively endorsed the settlement — and the NFL and a number of legendary players such as running back Jim Brown have agreed to help implement it — some former players are arguing that the $9.5 billion-a-year professional football industry should pay more. The lawsuit’s six original plaintiffs, including former Minnesota Vikings Jim Marshall, Joe Senser and Ed White, are following Ciresi, a former U.S. Senate candidate from Minnesota who was a lead counsel in the tobacco industry’s landmark $6 billion settlement in the late 1990s with the state of Minnesota and a major insurance company.

“Much of what [we have] talked about today — about the difficulty of succeeding, about the NFL isn’t going to pay any more -- [was] true of the tobacco industry,” Ciresi told a conference of former players in Las Vegas in May. The tobacco industry “offered us $4 billion to settle, and we turned it down,” he added.

But others involved in the case, which has a number of Minnesotans playing key roles, said the settlement is fair and would push the NFL to help former players now struggling with their personal lives.

The proposed settlement has two goals. One would funnel $42 million to a special panel of retired players, who would in turn give the money to groups that would help players with everything from medical screening and career transition advice to housing and health and dental coverage.

Sitting in the downtown Minneapolis office of his lawyer, former NFL player Irv Cross began crying as he described the now-destitute former players that the settlement would aid. “I get emotionally tied up in this thing,” said Cross, who retired in 1969 after playing for the Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles. He was a longtime a co-anchor for CBS’ “NFL Today” show and the athletic director at Macalester College in St. Paul.

The settlement’s second goal would have the NFL help create and promote licensing agreements for former players — a move that could help market throwback jerseys with the players’ names on them. As part of the settlement, the NFL has agreed to help promote apparel for at least 100 retired players. In addition, if an advertiser used game footage that had 20 identifiable players, all of them under the settlement would split the money.

“Some of the most important and most famous people in all of football on the retired players’ side are supporting it,” said Bucky Zimmerman, a Minneapolis lawyer who is opposing Ciresi in the case. “Jim Brown is, like, our lead guy [and] you can’t get any better than that.”

Some former players, however, complain that none of the money would go directly to the players and that the $50 million — although a large sum — pales in comparison with the revenue the NFL is now generating. The league’s $9.5 billion in current revenues is more than double the $4.3 billion the NFL generated in 2000.

Taking on a giant

The NFL and many players are trying to build momentum for accepting the proposed settlement by arguing that Ciresi faces several daunting legal obstacles if he proceeds and that the settlement being offered was crafted with the help of a chief federal magistrate in Minneapolis who also successfully brought about a contract between the NFL and its players union. In addition each former player who chooses to continue the fight — the league has 20,000 former players — may mean less money for the settlement because the NFL can divert up to $13.5 million of the settlement money to help fight any related legal claims.

Even if some former players continue the court fight, a judge has already indicated that claims over the NFL’s use of their likeness can go back only to 2003.

The NFL said that it, too, compromised to help reach a settlement and that relatively few former players will likely choose to continue the legal fight. “Everybody wins” with the proposed settlement, said Gary Gertzog, the NFL’s senior vice president for business and legal affairs.

Gertzog also said the former players for years knew what NFL Films and the league were doing with their likenesses but only became concerned when “someone knocked on their door in 2009” to tell them of the lawsuit. “There’s a small group, in particular, [that] I think are quite vocal,” he said.

“Certainly, from what we’re hearing, players are very enthusiastic about this settlement,” Gertzog added.

In a legal memorandum in April, U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson in Minnesota in fact castigated the six original former players who brought the lawsuit against the NFL in 2009 for abandoning their original goal of saving “their downtrodden brethren, those who had played in the NFL yet today were penniless.” The former players who want to press their claim, the judge said, “now complain, like children denied dessert” that the settlement is not enough.

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