Retired NFL players claim in lawsuit that NFLPA owes them money

SAN FRANCISCO -- The NFL Players Association purposely excluded retirees from lucrative marketing contracts, cheating them out of millions of dollars in royalties, a lawyer for some retired players said Tuesday.

L. Peter Parcher accused Gene Upshaw, the longtime union chief who died in August, and other union leaders of "conflict of interest and deceit" during opening statements in a federal trial to determine whether retirees are owed any money.

"Hundreds of millions of dollars came in for licensing, and our clients got zero," Parcher said. "Our guys are like the forgotten tribe."

The union contends companies such as Electronic Arts Inc., which paid $35 million this year for rights to players for its "Madden NFL" video game, paid only for active players.

Hall of Fame cornerback Herb Adderley filed the lawsuit last year on behalf of 2,056 retired players who contend the union actively sought to cut them out of licensing deals so active players could receive bigger royalty payments.

The 69-year-old Adderley hobbled into court Tuesday with a cane and dressed in a gold jacket. He and three other retired players are scheduled to take the witness stand to say they didn't receive any money from the union after they signed a so-called group licensing agreement.

Parcher said Upshaw and his deputy Doug Allen, who left the NFLPA last year to lead the Screen Actors Guild, created a union subsidiary called Players Inc. to function as the union's marketing arm. Upshaw and Allen also served as top managers of Players Inc., which handled the union's licensing deals.

Last year, Upshaw told the New York Times there was little corporate interest in the vast majority of retired players.

"We could have the greatest dog food in the world," Upshaw said, "but if the dogs don't like it, we can't sell it. Put that at the top of the story."

On Tuesday, 30 minutes into a trial that is expected to last more than two weeks, Parcher referred to the Times article.

"Gene Upshaw compared them to dog food," Parcher said.

Union lawyer Jeffrey Kessler defended Upshaw's 25 years as union chief and 15-season playing career as an Oakland Raiders guard.

"Mr. Upshaw was a Hall of Fame player who was dedicated to retired players," Kessler told the jury of eight women and two men.

The lawsuit is the latest salvo in an increasingly bitter dispute between retirees and the union over pensions, health care and other issues. Many retirees have complained the union has forgotten what past players have contributed to building the NFL into a highly profitable industry that richly compensates owners and players alike.

"It's embarrassing to be treated this way," said former Baltimore Colts linebacker Bob Grant, who sat in the court gallery watching the trial and wearing his Super Bowl V championship ring. "We have a lot of guys who have been taken advantage of."