Ex-players lose appeal vs. NFL, union in investment fraud case

ATLANTA -- A federal appeals court sided with the NFL and its players union Tuesday and upheld a judge's ruling against six former NFL players who claimed $20 million in losses to an investment scheme fronted by a hedge fund manager later convicted of fraud.

A three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court's ruling "in all respects," handing the league and the National Football League Players Association a key legal victory. An attorney for the players -- most of them former Denver Broncos -- said no decision has been made about an appeal yet.

The lawsuit claimed the NFL and the union should be held liable for the losses because of investments with hedge fund manager Kirk Wright, who the ex-players claim was endorsed by the union even though he had liens against him. It was filed by Steve Atwater, Ray Crockett, Al Smith, Blaine Bishop, Carlos Emmons and Clyde Simmons.

Wright hanged himself in a suburban Atlanta jail in May 2008, days after he was convicted of leading an investment scheme that cost his clients -- from the football players to his mother -- millions of dollars. Prosecutors said he spent the money on jewelry, real estate and a $500,000 wedding.

The football players claimed in the lawsuit that they wouldn't have invested in Wright's company if the NFL and the union had given them accurate information about Wright and his company. And they contended Wright was listed in the union's financial advisers program without a proper investigation.

But the league and the union fought back, countering that they can't be held liable because players are solely responsible for their own finances under the league's collective bargaining agreement. A federal judge ruled in favor of the NFL and the union in April 2009, and the panel's ruling Tuesday affirmed that decision.

Fidelma Fitzpatrick, an attorney for the players, said no decision has been made yet on whether to appeal. NFL attorneys did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment.

Richard Berthelsen, the union's general counsel, said the court's decision was a bittersweet victory.

"We certainly feel for the players in the loss they suffered and we're as dedicated as ever to try to minimize the number of instances where players are misled by financial advisers who don't play by the rules," he said. "All we can do is continue our efforts to try to protect players whenever and wherever we can."

Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

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