Fred Dryer wants his likeness back from NFL Films

Ronald Martinez

The former NFL defensive end says the NFL has a problem with the way it treats retired players.

You've seen Fred Dryer before. He's been starring on television in one way or another since 1969.

From 1984 through 1991, Dryer starred in the television show Hunter. Alongside his partner, played by Stepfanie Kramer, Hunter was a hard-charging police detective who played by his own rules. Hunter remains one of the most popular television shows in syndication.

Before getting his badge as Hunter, Dryer was a household name for his role in another popular television show: the National Football League. He was drafted in the first round by the New York Giants in 1969 and made his way back to his hometown Los Angeles Rams two years later. Dryer was a lightning-quick pass rusher in the days before sacks became an official stat. You can still see Dryer's handiwork on the field, however, via NFL Films.

The entertainment business is the overarching theme of Dryer's career as an actor and a football player. He's been a part of two of the most popular shows on television, and continues to be. But there's a difference between the two roles.

Dryer still gets paid for Hunter. He gets nothing when the National Football League uses his likeness.

Why is it OK for the league to confiscate our rights and not pay us anything?-Fred Dryer

Dryer and five others filed suit against the league -- and NFL Films specifically - in 2009 over that very issue.

"We filed the lawsuit on behalf of all retired players for the impropriety of using players' rights in promoting their business," Dryer told SB Nation.

Countless players from the past and present are featured in highlight reels, documentaries, television specials and other products. Present day players have ownership of their rights thanks to the 2011 collective bargaining agreement, but players from Dryer's era and others do not receive any kind of compensation when the NFL uses their likeness.

"I played in the league for 13 years," Dryer said. "While I did, they had my rights. I never received any money for that. I never asked for any. It was part of the promotion of being a member of the National Football League.

"But when my contract was up in August of '81 ... I no longer work for you. You can't use my likeness continually to promote your business without compensating me directly. They don't feel that way."

NFL Films is the league's mythology arm. Founded by Ed Sabol in the 1960s and promptly scooped up by owners, the dramatic voiceovers and slow motion shots of footballs flying through the air have been used to define and create the image of the league: its eras, teams and players.The look and feel of professional football owes everything to Sabol's creation.

It's also been a powerful marketing tool for selling the product of professional football.

In 2003, NFL Films found the perfect partner when the league created its own 24-hour cable channel, the NFL Network. The network's reach went from 12 million to 72 million households in 2013. It was actually the cable channel's expansion that spurred the 2009 lawsuit.

"The use and value of NFL Films just exploded," Dryer said. "It's a huge prize for them."

Money from NFL Films and the NFL Network goes into the league's national revenue stream that gets split between teams and shared with players under the collective bargaining agreement.

"The NFL creates a library of films to sell their product," he said. "Within that model are thousands of players who have individual rights."

Dryer wouldn't speculate about the value of NFL Films and how much revenue it generated. The ever expanding popularity, and profits, for the league and its teams suggest to him, however, that the likenesses of former players are worth more than they currently receive -- which is nothing -- and more than they would receive through a settlement proposed by the league this year.

***

The NFL proposed a settlement in the spring of 2013 that would put $50 million, minus an estimated $8 million in legal fees, into a fund for retired players. Settlement money would be paid out over eight years and it would go to approved charities that support initiatives for retired players. It would also create a licensing agency for retired players that would, ideally, generate additional revenue for the fund.

What works is getting money directly to former players-Dryer


A number of high-profile former players have come out in favor of the settlement, including Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown. The Hall of Fame running back leads a board of retired players that would be tasked with allocating funds from the settlement.

A federal court in Minnesota approved the settlement proposal and more than 20,000 retired players have until Aug. 30 to accept the deal or opt out of it. Dryer is encouraging his peers not to take the deal.

"They're putting you into a business model with the league that would raise money for retired players," Dryer explained. "But those models have proven to be dry wells."

The plaintiffs also take issue with what they perceive to be a lack of transparency in the settlement, as well as how it would work.

"We don't understand how they came up with $50 million," Dryer said. "The money goes into a fund, the fund gives it preexisting charities and the charity somehow, miraculously, tries to give it to the players. I don't want to be in a business I don't understand.

"What works is getting money directly to former players, which is what we want. We want to know what the revenue source is to negotiate a deal for all retired players.

"I'm opting out. I want nothing to do with this deal."

***

The NFL leans heavily on its personalities to sell its product. There are the superstars, those household names that fans across the globe can identify and bond with on Sundays throughout the year and then there's a general roster of good guys, bad guys, rebels and any other persona you might find in a scripted drama promoting teams, feeding rivalries and selling one of the world's most popular sports.

It's a business Dryer understands well.

The Hunter series, owned by the late legendary television producer Stephen J. Cannell, is one of the most popular and most valuable television shows in syndication.

"I know the value of the Hunter series, the value of the copyright that he owns, I share in that profit participation.

"I go to Steve Cannell and say, 'We've been doing the show for awhile now. It's going to be a huge hit. I think I deserve a little of the back end of your copyright or your library.' So the negotiation is 'what's Fred going to get to go forward to make the show?'

"We have a deal, we shake hands on it. And now, I'm a part of it and get paid for anytime that show runs anywhere in the world."

It's the same model Dryer and the other plaintiffs would like to see the NFL embrace.

"We're asking for profit participation of the NFL library of the NFL Films that we've taken part in. Why wouldn't that stand the test of reason?"

***

Once players choose to opt in or out of the settlement proposal, the issue heads back to the Federal court in Minnesota. If enough players opt out, the judge could choose to reopen talks between the plaintiffs and the league, but there is no threshold for that to happen.

Some believe that the judge, Paul Magnuson, will choose not to send the two sides back to the bargaining table. When Magnuson approved the NFL's settlement proposal in April, he said:

"It bears repeating: the individuals who originally brought this lawsuit and who now oppose the settlement rode into court on the banner of saving their downtrodden brethren, those who had played in the N.F.L. yet today were penniless and, often, suffering from injuries or illnesses directly related to their playing days. It is the height of disingenuousness for these same plaintiffs to now complain, like children denied dessert, that the settlement does not benefit enough the individuals who brought the lawsuit."

Players who opt out of the settlement can then file individual lawsuits against the league. They could be more encouraged to do so in light of recent developments in the O'Bannon vs. NCAA case, too, now that former college players are suing over the use of their likeness being used in video games.

In July, the Ninth Circuit threw out an appeal from video game maker EA Sports. The decision rejected the argument from EA that player likeness were protected by the First Amendment and it will allow the case to proceed.

The Dryer plaintiffs are watching that case closely. They're also watching another lawsuit, filed by thousands of former NFL players over the issue of concussions.

"I think there is a correlation in the atmosphere here," Dryer said of the two cases. "The NFL is looking very capriciously and cavalierly at the concussion issue.

"There's a predisposed notion [from the NFL] of 'we want that, we're going to take that.' There's an arrogance in there."

***

Dryer is ultimately hopeful that something can be worked out, that he and his fellow retired players can strike a deal with the NFL that would pay them directly for the use of their likeness while leaving them with ownership of it.

"I do a lot of business with my likeness as an actor and producer," Dryer said. "My likeness is my profession. It's my brand. Every person has a brand, and every person has a right to move their brand in a direction they want.

"I can't take someone else's likeness and use it to promote my interests without contacting and paying that person. So why is it OK for the league to confiscate our rights and not pay us anything?"

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