Madden Can Be Agent for Change in NFL Union

Mark KriegelCorrespondent INovember 14, 2008

Where's Madden?

Sounds like a new game. If only it were that amusing.

Five days have passed since a federal jury in San Francisco determined that the NFL Players Association should pay retired members an astounding $28.1 million in damages ($7.1 million, compensatory; $21 million, punitive).

Basically, the late Gene Upshaw's union conspired to cheat these men out of proceeds from use of their likenesses in the phenomenally successful "Madden" video games.

One union official actually advised the manufacturer, EA Sports, to "scramble" the ex-players' identifying names and numbers so as not to pay them. But John Madden himself has managed to remain silent.

And that's just wrong. I'm not arguing that Madden is responsible for the union's conduct, or that he knew of it. But, ultimately, endorsers should be held accountable for the harm that is camouflaged by their names.

When activists charged that Nike was manufacturing basketball shoes under deplorable conditions in Indonesian factories, it became Michael Jordan's problem. Kathie Lee Gifford was pilloried—a bit unjustly, it turned out—when it was learned that her clothing line was made by underage children in Honduran sweatshops.

Madden's situation is a little different. Madden was a Raiders assistant from 1967 to 1968, and the head coach from 1969 to 1978. The people exploited in this case weren't on the other side of the world. They weren't faceless abstractions. They were Madden's contemporaries. Some he coached against. Others played their hearts out for him. They helped him make his bones.

The class-action lawsuit was filed in 2007 on behalf of 2,062 former NFL players, about 570 of whom were found to have appeared in various versions of "Madden" without compensation. The games include 142 vintage teams, among them the '66 Packers, the '71 Cowboys, and a seemingly inordinate number of Raider teams.

According to a plaintiff's exhibit, the Madden '05 Collector's Edition for PlayStation Two includes every Raiders team from 1967-1977 except '73. Anyone who played for Oakland in those years played for Madden. In fact, the plaintiffs include any number of storied Raiders, guys like Ken Stabler, Jim Otto, Dave Casper, and Ben Davidson.

"If John Madden knew that they were scrambling us, it's a disgrace," said Herb Adderley, the Hall of Fame defensive back who initiated the suit. "If he didn't know, well, no blame to him...But I'm sure he's seen some of these video games himself. I mean, I played against the Raiders in the Super Bowl. He can obviously see that the guy on '66 Packers and the '71 Cowboys is Herb Adderley.

"He should say something. It would really help if he would come out and say something to heal the animosity between the current and the retired players. It's been a real bad thing."

"It's time for a change in this union," said Peter Parcher, the lead trial lawyer for the retired players. "John Madden can be a constructive, positive force. Given that his name is on the game, and that everybody in football looks up to him, it would be wonderful for all the players—active and retired—if he came forward as a unifying force."

Then again, before any of that can happen, Madden has to surface.

I called NBC, which employs Madden as an announcer for Sunday Night Football. The PR guy at NBC tells me this has nothing to do with NBC. This is a job for the PR guy at EA Sports, he says.

"It's not really a 'Madden' story," says Rob Semsey, the PR guy at EA Sports, which had revenues of $3.67 billion last fiscal year. "It's a dispute between the retired players and the NFLPA."

I always love when they tell me what the story is.

What are my chances of speaking with John Madden, I ask.

"Slim and none," he says.

An hour or so later, Rob Semsey's boss calls me. His name is Jeff Brown and he tells me to call Madden's agent.

Sandy Montag, of IMG, was out to lunch. Let me be fair, though. Sandy Montag is an incredibly important man. He's so important, in fact, that his lunches must last five, six hours.

Again, no Madden. Of course, if I wanted to talk about the tailgating recipes in his cookbook or the foot cream he swears by, I bet I could've gotten him on the phone.

The more I thought about it, though, the more culpable I considered him to be.

I'd say Madden didn't know what the union was doing to the retired players, who were, after all, his kind of people, his guys. But after that lawsuit was filed, it became his business to know. And now that a jury has come back with such a damning verdict, it's his business to say something.

It would be a shame for Madden to end up another endorsement hustler, as he enjoyed great respect among those who played for him.

"He speaks a common language every man understands," Jim Otto, the Raiders Hall of Fame center and, more recently, a class-action plaintiff, once wrote. "John's down-to-earth personality was one reason why the Raiders players liked him. He seemed to understand what we were going through."

Jack Youngblood, another tough guy plaintiff, also professes an undying admiration for the former coach. Madden once said that Youngblood, a Rams defensive end who once played with a broken leg, "personified the All-Madden team."

"Trying to say that John has some responsibility, I think, is stretching it," said Youngblood. "It's EA's responsibility. It's on the union."

I didn't say Madden was in any way responsible for the swindle. I said he should address the issues in the suit.

"At some point in time," said Youngblood, "John Madden will stand up and do the right thing. I trust him as one of the great coaches in the league, and a great man. I firmly believe he will do what's honorable."

I hope John Madden justifies an endorsement like that. I hope he has it in him to make the All-Youngblood team.

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