Marketing company returned to Unitas' son

Appeals court says widow, advisers acted improperly

September 22, 2004|By Bill Atkinson | Bill Atkinson,SUN STAFF

John Unitas' widow and business advisers improperly wrested control of the marketing rights to the Baltimore Colts legend from his son, a state appellate court ruled yesterday.

Adding a chapter to a family feud that began almost immediately after the quarterback's death in September 2002, a three-judge panel of the Maryland Court of Special Appeals overturned a decision by a Baltimore County Circuit judge affirming moves by Unitas' second wife and his longtime attorney and accountant to force John C. Unitas Jr. out of Unitas Management Corp.

The appeals court did not rule on the dueling complaints of self-dealing and mismanagement leveled by each family faction against the other, rather only on the question of whether Sandra L. Unitas and her husband's advisers could use their power as overseers of the quarterback's estate to cut Unitas Jr. out of the business he had started with his father in 1991.

"It is a flat-out victory for Junior," said Robert R. Bowie Jr., Unitas Jr.'s lawyer. "What the court has done is provide exactly what Johnny Unitas Sr. wanted for his son, to have the management of his legacy."

Friction over Unitas Sr.'s legacy spilled into the courts just five months after his death, when Unitas Jr. was sued by his stepmother, longtime Unitas Sr. attorney Charles M. Tatelbaum, and accountant Howard Moffet. They said Unitas Jr. had "pillaged" the company.

Unitas Management, which Johnny Unitas started with Unitas Jr. and his son's wife, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in June 2003.

But some experts believe it has the potential to reap $250,000 a year or more by marketing the star player's legacy in an era of 24-hour sports cable and Internet outlets that weren't a gleam in anyone's eye in the 1950s and 1960s, when Unitas became known as the game's greatest quarterback.

Unitas Jr. is one of five children of Unitas and his first wife, Dorothy Jean, who died in 2002. Unitas had three more children with Sandra L. Unitas after their marriage in 1973.

Focus on rebuilding

Unitas Jr. said the fight to win back Unitas Management has been "a long haul."

"I am very happy with the decision issued today by the Court of Special Appeals," he said. "I now want to focus on rebuilding the business that my dad and I built together and will continue to build on the legacy of my father."

Sandra Unitas did not return calls.

Stephen J. Nolan, the lawyer for Unitas Sr.'s estate and the personal representatives of the estate, said he was "disappointed with the court's determination."

Within the next 10 days the estate's representatives will review the opinion and weigh whether to seek a further review by the Court of Appeals of Maryland, Nolan said.

The estate representatives alleged in the lawsuit that after Unitas Sr. died at age 69, his 90 percent control of the marketing firm transferred to them.

They voted out Unitas Jr., a 10 percent shareholder, as president and Unitas Jr.'s wife, Christine, as secretary in January 2003.

New officers

Sandra Unitas was named Unitas Management's president, Moffet secretary and Tatelbaum assistant secretary.

In March 2003, Baltimore County Circuit Judge Thomas J. Bollinger Sr. backed their claim to be the rightful owners.

Unitas Sr. disinherited the children from his first marriage in his will, which was executed in 2000.

But eight years earlier, he had made a separate arrangement effectively stipulating that his ownership of the management company should go to John Unitas Jr. and his wife in exchange for proceeds from a $125,000 life insurance policy held by Unitas Sr.

"The personal representative of the estate refused to transfer the stock and instead they elected themselves and Unitas' widow to UMC's board and ousted the son," appeals court Judge Andrew L. Sonner wrote in the court's opinion.

"Then they purported to terminate the agreement by voting Unitas' shares against it."

`Lacked the authority'

Sonner wrote that the "estate lacked the authority to terminate the contract" in the decision that ordered the lower court to change its ruling.

Bowie said the next step is for Unitas Management to emerge from bankruptcy protection.

The decision won't affect the move made last year to rename the football stadium at Towson University for Unitas Sr., Bowie said.

Referring to the rights to Unitas' name, Bowie said, "Once it is in the hands of the people who know what to do ... it should thrive and prosper and become whole and right again. The Johnny Unitas name is still huge in the industry. He is a household word in the football family."

Great name in sports

Marc Ganis, president of SportsCorp Ltd., a Chicago-based sports industry consulting firm, agreed there is potential to market the Unitas name, especially since the National Football League has launched a cable channel featuring vintage footage.

"He is still one of the great names in American sports," Ganis said. "As we continue to niche-market our sports and as the NFL continues to expand its footprint, those big names ... will continue to go up in value."

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