Suit accuses NFL of exploiting identities

MINNEAPOLIS -- NFL Hall of Famer Elvin Bethea and five other players sued the league for using their names and images for profit without their permission.

The players filed a class-action lawsuit Thursday in federal court in Minneapolis. The lawsuit accuses the NFL of exploiting retired players' identities in films, highlight reels and memorabilia to market the league's "glory days" without compensating the players.

"It's really turned into a big property," said Bob Stein, a lawyer for the players.

How much former players are owed is unclear, Stein said. But the lawsuit suggests the amount exceeds $5 million.

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello had no comment because the league has not yet reviewed the lawsuit. NFL Players Association spokesman Carl Francis also declined comment.

The other players listed in the suit are Jim Marshall, Ed White, Joe Senser, Fred Dryer and Dan Pastorini.

Stein, who played in the NFL for seven years, said other retired players approached him when they saw their names and images in NFL Films videos and other material used today by the league.

"A couple of my old teammates [were] asking me if when we played, we gave the league the right to use any kind of publicity forever," he said.

Stein expects to add more players to the class-action suit. Many former players struggle financially and continue to deal with injuries they suffered during their playing days, he said.

"I can tell you the motivation of the action and the representatives are to try and help everybody," he said. "What form that takes, I don't know yet and no one would know."

Michael McCann, a sports law expert and professor at Vermont Law School, said the lawsuit was similar to a complaint filed last month by former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon against the NCAA. O'Bannon is seeking unspecified damages for the use of former players' likenesses in video games and other material.

In this case, McCann said, the NFL would likely refer to its collective bargaining agreement with the NFLPA. The player contract in that agreement gives publicity rights to the league.

"Whether there's sufficient language in there affecting retired players remains to be seen," McCann said.

In June, a group of more than 2,000 retirees won a $26.25 million settlement with the NFLPA over the use of their likenesses in video games, trading cards and other sports products. The retirees sued in 2007, accusing the union of failing to actively pursue marketing deals for such products.