Retirees hope to join players' lawsuit

MINNEAPOLIS -- Four former NFL players, including Hall of Fame defensive end Carl Eller, sued the NFL on Monday in hopes of joining current players in their antitrust fight against the league.

Eller, three-time All-Pro running back Priest Holmes and ex-players Obafemi Ayanbadejo and Ryan Collins are listed as plaintiffs in the 44-page complaint filed in federal court in Minneapolis and obtained by The Associated Press. It seeks class-action status on behalf of all former players.

The retirees want the NFL lockout lifted to ensure their pensions and health benefits remain funded. According to the lawsuit, those benefits will end if a collective bargaining agreement is not renewed by next March 11 -- a year after the last one expired.

The NFL offers retirement, disability and death benefits, with each program subsidized by the 32 teams. The benefits can be terminated if no CBA is in effect for more than a year, the lawsuit says.

The case was assigned to Senior U.S. District Judge Richard Kyle in St. Paul, Minn., where U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson is scheduled to hold an April 6 hearing on a request by current players to immediately halt the lockout.

Shawn Stuckey, an attorney for the retired players, said he intends to ask the court to combine the retirees' lawsuit with the antitrust suit filed by Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning and others.

"We hope that we can be a part of that hearing. For the sake of judicial economy, it would help to streamline things to make sure you get all parties involved at the same table at the same hearing at the same time," Stuckey said.

He added: "If we can't get that, we want to give the retired players a voice."

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said in an email that league attorneys had not yet had an opportunity to review the retirees' lawsuit and declined to comment.

On Monday, current NFL players defended their right to disband as a union and file the antitrust suit, saying employers cannot force workers to unionize, and dissolution is "not akin to turning off a light switch."

The players made the statements in a court document filed in response to the NFL's assertion decertification was "a sham."

The players say that prior court decisions have made it clear the right of workers not to unionize is absolute. The players disclaimed their union, gave up the right to strike, to collectively bargain and to have union representation.

"The players sacrificed these labor law rights for one reason: to gain the ability to assert antitrust claims against anticompetitive restrictions imposed by defendants," lawyers for the players argued on Monday.

Regarding the players' reponse to the league Aiello said, "There are no surprises or arguments we did not expect. The union's lawyers still fail to come to terms with the jurisdictional principles that bar an injunction in this case."

Stuckey, a former linebacker with New England and Tampa Bay, said he's been in "constant contact" with the attorneys representing the current players.

"We thought the best way to remain in solidarity with all the players was to give everyone a voice at the table," Stuckey said in a phone interview. "We wanted to make sure that we're consistent with the goals of all NFL players. We want everyone to be on the same page. We hope that our efforts from this point forth remain consistent."

Eller, who was part of Minnesota's famed Purple People Eaters defensive line, is in the suit to represent the Hall of Famers. Eller was inducted in 2004.

Holmes, the AP's Offensive Player of the Year in 2002 with Kansas City, and Ayanbadejo, a teammate of his in Baltimore on the Super Bowl champion team in the 2000 season, are plaintiffs to represent retirees with vested pensions.

Collins, a tight end with Baltimore and Cleveland and was on Minnesota's practice squad in 1998, is on the suit to represent non-vested former players.

Meanwhile, a New York judge says the league must be limited in how much money it can recover when injured players receive state workers' compensation awards.

Judge Paul Crotty wrote in a decision Friday that the NFL sometimes wants to recover more money than it is entitled to receive to offset its salary and benefits expenses for injured players.

The NFL Players Association says the ruling protects a significant benefit for former players.

Jeffrey Kessler, an attorney with the players association, said NFL teams had been going to court in various states and arguing they could deduct any salary benefits they paid to players after the injury. He said the league considered an earlier ruling by Crotty to apply only to the individual players named in the lawsuit rather than everyone in similar circumstances.

"Retired players frequently have very severe injuries," Kessler said. "It's very significant to the retired players."

Kessler said it could ultimately involve tens of millions of dollars paid out to hundreds of former players.

The NFL argues the ruling only pertains to the proper calculation of workers compensation benefits for players who also receive injury protection payments.

"The federal court decision ... concerned only the question of the proper calculation of workers compensation benefits received by NFL players who also have received from their clubs injury protection payments under the recently expired CBA," Aiello said in an email to The Associated Press. "The court ruled that a prior arbitration decision on how such offsets should be calculated under the NFL player contract should be enforced. The NFL clubs have fully abided by that decision.

"... there was no finding by the federal court of any 'unlawful' conduct or any finding that an NFL club has failed to pay workers compensation benefits due to players under state law."

The issue has been a point of contention in collective bargaining agreement negotiations between players and the NFL. The league locked out the players on March 11 after the NFLPA dissolved as a union and 10 players filed for an injunction to block the lockout.

The NFLPA filed a grievance on May 17, 2005 against the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets on behalf of two injured players, Steve Harvey and David Alexander. The Bills and Jets claimed offsets for the entire amount of workers' compensation benefits they paid to Harvey and Alexander.

Four months later, the NFLPA brought a similar grievance against the Carolina Panthers on behalf of players Charles Smith, Dusty Renfro, Michael Swift and Jason Peter.

Again, the NFLPA argued the Panthers' dollar-for-dollar claim was inappropriate and that they were entitled only to recoup a much smaller amount according to a formula spelled out in the contract that calculates how much of the season each player was injured.

In February 2007, an arbitrator ruled in favor of the NFLPA, and a federal court in Manhattan confirmed the arbitrator's award a year later. The NFL Management Council opposed the confirmation, asking the court to conclude it didn't have jurisdiction.

But Crotty confirmed the award Friday, and rejected the NFL request for dollar-for-dollar compensation.

Information from The Associated Press contributed to this report.