MINNEAPOLIS -- A federal judge in Minnesota gave final approval Friday to a $50 million settlement in the complicated court fight over publicity rights for retired NFL players, calling it a "one-of-a-kind, and a remarkable victory for the class as a whole."
The NFL and the retired players reached the agreement in March, and U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson gave preliminary approval in April. But 19 players had filed objections, with some saying direct payments won't be made to the former players and that varying benefits will be unfairly distributed.
In his order Friday, Magnuson said those who objected because they were lured by the prospect of a lucrative personal payout have strayed from the initial goal of the lawsuit -- to help those players with dire physical, mental and financial needs. He said the majority of the class -- more than 25,000 players -- recognized the settlement would help thousands of former players because a large financial payout would go to a fund organized for their benefit.
"Nearly all of the objections boil down to what is, in the court's view, the objectors' very mistaken belief that they could reap significant financial benefits from continuing this case," Magnuson said. He said those who believe a settlement that doesn't directly benefit players is impermissible "are wrong."
More than 2,000 players opted out of the settlement, and will have the opportunity to pursue their own claims against the NFL. Those cases will be allowed to immediately go forward.
Bob Stein, an attorney for some of the plaintiffs who opposed the settlement, said he will appeal. He said there was no discovery that revealed the value of NFL Films, so there's no way to know if the settlement is fair. He also said the settlement doesn't provide direct payments to those who have given up publicity rights.
Dan Gustafson, an attorney representing those who agreed to the settlement, said he's pleased with the judge's ruling and hopes those opposed will "put this behind them now and join us in trying to implement the settlement for the benefit of the players."
Under the agreement, some $42 million will be distributed to a "common good" trust over eight years to help retired players with issues like medical expenses, housing and career transition. The settlement will also establish a licensing agency for retirees to ensure compensation for the use of their identities. The league will pay another $8 million in associated costs, including startup money for the licensing agency.
The trust will be administered by a group of retired players approved by the court. The licensing agency will for the first time market retiree publicity rights in conjunction with the NFL, thereby making it easier for retired players to work with potential sponsors and advertisers.
The settlement only covers those players who are currently retired, but players who retire in the future will have the chance to utilize the newly formed licensing agency.
Magnuson wrote that while the objections were "especially vociferous," only one-tenth of 1 percent of the class objected and less than 10 percent requested to opt out. He said the objections were without merit.
"This fund will provide substantial benefits to the class as a whole," the judge wrote.
The lawsuit was filed in 2009, with NFL Hall of Famer Elvin Bethea, Fred Dryer, Dan Pastorini, Joe Senser, Ed White and Jim Marshall accusing the NFL of exploiting retired players' identities in films, highlight reels and memorabilia to market the league's "glory days" without compensating the players. That same year, a group of more than 2,000 retirees won a $26.25 million settlement with the NFL Players Association over the use of their likenesses in video games, trading cards and other sports products.
Pastorini, Marshall, and Senser ended up objecting to the settlement and will be part of an appeal. The other three original plaintiffs opted out and will be included in other litigation, Stein said.
Gordon Rudd, another attorney for the plaintiffs in favor of the settlement, said the settlement gives retired players a chance to monetize the value of their images through the licensing agency.
"It is a historic settlement," he said. "It's very creative and it's very exciting to see this opportunity being provided to retired players for the first time."
The lawsuit against the league was similar to a still-pending lawsuit filed against the NCAA by Ed O'Bannon and other former college athletes seeking damages for the use of former players' likenesses in video games and other material.
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