ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The federal judge overseeing the complicated court fight over publicity payouts between the NFL and retired players took the case under advisement Thursday, before deciding whether to give final approval to the $50 million settlement.
U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson heard arguments in his courtroom in Minnesota but gave no timetable for his decision on the settlement, which was reached in March between the league and the players. Magnuson gave preliminary approval in April. More than 2,000 players chose to opt out of the class action, less than 8 percent of the group, and another 19 filed objections to the settlement.
The lawsuit was originally filed in 2009, accusing the NFL of exploiting identities of retired players in highlight films and memorabilia. Two splinter lawsuits involving players who opted out were filed against NFL Films in September in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, but Magnuson halted them with the original case still pending.
The majority group pushing for approval comprises more than 25,000 players. One of their attorneys, Dan Gustafson, urged Magnuson to approve the settlement. Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown sat at the table with lawyers for that side.
“Even if you assume all these people opted out because they didn’t like the deal, you don’t have to protect these people, your honor. They’ll get their day in court,” Gustafson said. He added: “It’s not a vote against a settlement. It’s really a vote that they want to take a different path.”
An appeal will come from whichever side Magnuson rules against.
Magnuson wrote in April that plaintiffs complaining about the settlement were being petulant “like children denied dessert.” But the judge sharply questioned Gustafson on Thursday, asking him for evidence of how players in the class action will be directly benefited.
Those objecting argue that direct payments won’t be made to the former players and that varying benefits will be unfairly distributed. They also expressed concern about the lack of a neutral party to guide administration of the funds.
Some $42 million will be distributed to a “common good” trust over the next 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 common good fund 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.
Mike Ciresi, one of the attorneys representing former Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jim Marshall and others who filed objections, argued that the NFL will be taken off the hook with the settlement. He said the actual value of the publicity rights has not been determined and should be worth more.
“At the end of the day, some of these players will get nothing. And the NFL will walk away with its asset, and once again the players will be on the short end of the stick,” Ciresi said.
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