Former NFL players sue league in Pittsburgh federal court

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The famed Immaculate Reception footage could become the proverbial Exhibit 1 in a lawsuit filed late Friday in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh by 564 former NFL players who want direct compensation for the league's use of its vast archival video library by its film and TV subsidiaries.

The plaintiffs, led by the estate of former Oakland Raider standout John D. "Jack" Tatum, also include former Steelers L.C. Greenwood, Louis Lipps and Barry Foster. Other notable plaintiffs include Mark Duper, Rodney Hampton and Ricky Waters.

They played before 2011, when, according to plaintiffs' attorney Jason Luckasevic, the players union negotiated away all future rights to the images held by NFL Films.

They have all opted out of a proposed $50 million settlement reached in the Minnesota case Dryer v. NFL. Of that, $42 million of the proceeds would go to provide medical, housing and career help to retired players in need, and the rest is slated for attorney fees and administrative costs. The deadline to opt out of that settlement was Friday.

It's no accident that Mr. Tatum is the lead plaintiff. "You know how famous one of his videos is," said Mr. Luckasevic, of the Downtown law firm Goldberg, Persky & White, on Saturday. "They play it every 20 minutes in Pittsburgh."

Mr. Tatum put the hit on John "Frenchy" Fuqua that led to Franco Harris' Immaculate Reception.

"And it's referred to as the greatest play in NFL history," said Mr. Luckasevic. The involved players "have never gotten a penny from that."

The players could have had no idea that NFL Films would have become such an integral part of the league's marketing and money-making model, he said, and their contracts were silent on the rights to their images.

NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said in a written response to a request for comment that the league is "disappointed that these retired players believe that additional litigation will be productive in the face of [federal] Judge [Paul A.] Magnuson's decision in April finding that the [Dryer] settlement negotiated under the close supervision of the court is fair and reasonable.

"We agree with the judge that the settlement will benefit the large class of retired players particularly those in need of medical and financial assistance."

According to the Tatum complaint, the NFL created NFL Films in the 1960s, and the NFL Network in 2003. The network shows famous games and plays, and the film unit sells materials drawn from its catalog directly to consumers, the complaint indicates.

Players "knew that they were getting filmed, but they had no idea" that the film would be so valuable, Mr. Lukasevic said. The continued airing of the footage, he said, "is the unauthorized use of their images."

Mr. Luckasevic said that his experience launching the first NFL concussion lawsuits, which helped to lead to this week's $765 million settlement between the league and former players, led to this lawsuit.

He said he filed in Pittsburgh because it's a prominent NFL city. "It's home to so many NFL football players and arguably the greatest franchise of all time."

Mr. Luckasevic said more former players could join the lawsuit.

The complaint indicated that the league's use of the players' images violates trademark law, the right of publicity and constitutes unjust enrichment. It noted that the plaintiffs seek more than $5 million.

Steelers - neigh_city - breaking

Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1542 or Twitter @richelord.


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