Player cards reshuffled in NFL labor deal


The Quarterback Club may soon be under new management.

The club, actually a group of NFL quarterbacks that broke ranks with its former union to sign over licensing rights to the league, became a symbol of football's ugly labor war.

The focus of last week's settlement between the league and its players has been on free agency. But there were other issues contained in the seven lawsuits tentatively settled with the agreement.

Also resolved: the Quarterback Club dispute over player card revenues and about $30 million in disputed back pay for players denied the opportunity to resume play immediately after the 1987 strike.

The player card controversy was of considerable importance to the NFL Players Association. The group, which decertified itself as a union in a legal gambit, depended on licensing rights for the bulk of its income.

Like other players associations, the NFL's got most of its members to sign over the rights to group licensing deals. The NFLPA then would market the players to trading card companies, which would pay fees to the association for the players' images and to NFL Properties for the use of team names or logos.

With a boom in trading card revenues -- one recent study estimates $1.4 billion was spent on cards in 1991 alone -- the association netted millions of dollars. Last year, its best yet, brought in $20 million from trading cards. That was enough to fund the $20 million, five-year legal war against the league and provide rebates to members, up to $5,000 each during the past two years.

The league, however, began getting into the act about two years ago, offering incentives of up to $100,000 to pry star players out of their players association agreements. Eleven quarterbacks, including Randall Cunningham and Troy Aikman, signed up with the league and were marketed as the Quarterback Club.

Other players in other positions followed, and the players association sued the league, charging it with illegally interfering in its contracts. The association also sued some of the players, trying to enforce licensing agreements they had signed.

The league said it just was trying to make money, but the players accused it of trying to rob the association of its ability to fight the league.

Part of the extensive NFL-NFLPA agreement last week calls for the league to stop trying to sign up players, said Tom DePaso, an attorney for the players association and a former Cincinnati Bengals linebacker.

"The league will get out of the player business and will stop trying to sign up players and leave it up to us," DePaso said.

Trading card revenues, he said, "gave us the ability to challenge the league in court and reach this settlement. . . . Unless the entire market goes south, it will give us some financial stability."

A portion of the $195 million cash settlement the league has agreed to pay includes compensation for the trading card issue, he said.

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said, "They will be doing the group licensing as they have all along, although we won't be competing for it like we have been. There is an agreement to cooperate rather than compete."

He said the Quarterback Club would continue in some form. The club was formed in 1991 in conjunction with NFL Properties as a licensing entity that puts out cards, clothing and other items.

DePaso said the details of the agreement with the league still are being worked out, but he said they allow the league to honor existing contracts with the understanding that new recruits would not be signed and that expiring contracts would not be renewed.

Rich Klein, a trading card analyst with Beckett Publications, said the schism between the league and players greatly had complicated the market for cards. Sixty football card sets were offered for sale last year, and the league rapidly was signing up the most valuable players, he said.

"The players association had its stars, and NFL Properties had its stars. It was bad for the collectors," Klein said.

Another part of the settlement is dedicated to providing a game's pay for more than 1,000 players who were prevented from playing the Sunday after the 1987 strike was called off. Owners had said the players must return to work by the prior Wednesday in order to play. The strike was called off the next day, and games were played with non-striking and replacement players.

But the National Labor Relations Board, in a case filed in Baltimore, ruled it was an unfair labor practice to bar only the former strikers from playing. The case was appealed, the full NLRB upheld the ruling last September and the league appealed it.

Last week's settlement, however, ends the matter with the owners paying the affected players what they would have made for playing the game, including average bonuses and interest, DePaso said. The total payment of $30 million will average about $25,000 per player.

The $30 million is also a part of the $195 million settlement, as is the estimated $20 million in player association legal bills, he said.

Aiello, with the NFL, confirmed that the case was settled with last week's agreement.

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