Unitas checks off, calls son's number to score financially

January 19, 1994|By John Steadman

Right now John Unitas is listening to John Unitas. No, he's not talking to himself. It's just that another Unitas has his undivided attention. More specifically, it's John Jr. sending in the plays to John Sr., who reserves the right to accept, reject or make revisions -- the same as checking off at the line of scrimmage.

The consummate quarterback in National Football League history doesn't always agree with what his son tells him, but it appears he finally has the business adviser he needs. They are partners in what is called Unitas Management Corp., which looks out for the perpetuation and merchandising of the Unitas name.

No longer can outside agents, dealers and common hustlers, trying to turn a fast dollar, commercialize the legendary status that Unitas' ability achieved. Such an eminent position ought to be protected, not abused or taken advantage of, and the younger Unitas, 37, has committed himself to doing just that.

If a company or individual intends to unite with Unitas by asking him to speak, appear at a trade or card show, cut a ribbon for a grand opening, have him endorse a product or show up at some quasi-business reception, then the place to start is the office of Unitas Management. That's where John Unitas Jr. has become as tough to confront as his father was in the face of a pass rush.

"My dad hasn't changed his ways," explained John The Son. "It's just that I review the deals that are offered and, if the arrangements are financially suitable, then I take them to him and he decides. For so many years, my father took people at their word and a handshake. Too often he was victimized, but you never heard him complain."

The arrangement allows him to cull the opportunities, to establish the license fee or compensation and review the details.

"I prefer to be the 'bad guy' rather than put my dad in a position of saying no," John Jr. added. The days of Unitas' being parcelled out to agents eager to capitalize on his reputation are over.

At times in the past, Unitas, unlike when he was on the field, was too much of a soft touch. He has been victimized by entrepreneurs and, too frequently, was left with the full fiscal responsibility when an endeavor turned sour. Now he owns himself, along with his son's involvement, and that, most emphatically, is in his best interest.

Bart Starr Jr. and John Henry Williams, the son of Ted, are similarly handling business affairs for their famous fathers.

"I'm only interested in maximizing the value of his good name," remarked Unitas Jr. "He will continue to sign autographs but not on footballs, helmets or jerseys. They are premium items. Card shows have paid Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Joe Montana and others in excess of $20,000. Why should John Unitas, with the consideration he shows to people, do the same thing for $5,000?"

Sports memorabilia has become a multimillion-dollar enterprise and Unitas deserves to share in the income. DiMaggio agreed to a deal that's going to be worth a reported $9 million, points out John Jr., specifying that every baseball bat the former New York Yankees hero signs will retail for $2,200.

"None of the companies that put out cards or hold memorabilia shows have control over my father," he said. "Photo companies in the past allowed my father's picture to be published for commercial purposes and sold to the public without authorization and a royalty. They now risk legal action.

"His name and picture are his personal rights, the same as the Unitas logo, the 'Golden Arm Award' and his signature. They have been trademarked and copyrighted."

Unless utilized for advertising, the use of his picture in newspapers or magazines is in the public domain and John Jr. won't argue that point. NFL Properties controls two images of Unitas shown wearing a helmet with horseshoes. Otherwise, he's a free agent and can make deals along with setting his own price.

For the first time, through the insistence of his namesake son, he's not being violated by the parasites. John Jr. believes NFL Properties and other firms should be treating older players with more consideration.

"This should have been done 10 years ago," he said. "No one ever looked out for my dad's best interests. He doesn't always agree with what I tell him, which is to be expected since most fathers don't put their financial affairs in the hands of a son, but he is certainly receptive to most of the things I have to say."

John Unitas, senior and junior, are keeping their business in the family. It's as it should be.

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