Unitas son wins right to market his name

Dispute over estate of Colts quarterback ends in settlement

September 28, 2005|By LAURA SMITHERMAN AND JUNE ARNEY | LAURA SMITHERMAN AND JUNE ARNEY,SUN REPORTERS

The final chapter of a two-year legal dispute between survivors of Baltimore football legend Johnny Unitas over the lucrative rights to his name and likeness might have been written with a settlement yesterday.

As part of the agreement, Unitas' second wife, Sandra L. Unitas, and the athlete's former advisers dropped claims alleging that Unitas' oldest son, John C. Unitas Jr., stole funds from a marketing firm he and his father founded. Unitas and his son ran Unitas Management Corp. for about a decade before the former Baltimore Colts quarterback died in September 2002.

At stake in the case were potential marketing deals that experts believe are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. The dispute also had cast doubt over the naming of Towson University's football stadium for the former Colt. John Unitas Jr. said yesterday that he would not challenge the agreement his stepmother made with the university in 2003, after she and former Unitas advisers took control of the company.

The dispute began when Sandra Unitas, along with her husband's advisers Charles M. Tatelbaum and Howard Moffet, sued Unitas Jr. They accused him of pillaging the company and argued that Unitas Sr.'s 90 percent stake transferred to them and the estate.

Unitas Jr., who owned the other 10 percent, argued that his father had arranged for Sandra Unitas and the estate to get $125,000 from a life insurance policy. In exchange, the rest of the company would go to him. Unitas Jr. also accused his stepmother and the advisers of running the company into bankruptcy.

The Maryland Court of Special Appeals ruled last year that Unitas Jr. should control the company. The other legal matters remained before the Baltimore County Circuit Court.

Claims are dropped

All parties dropped their claims and counterclaims as part of the settlement. Unitas Jr. agreed to pay $60,000 in accounting fees stemming from the bankruptcy of Unitas Management Corp.

Stephen J. Nolan, a lawyer for Tatelbaum and Moffet, and Andrew J. Graham, a lawyer for Sandra Unitas, said yesterday that the settlement included other terms but declined to give details. They added they were satisfied with the settlement.

"It's good that the litigation is behind all the parties," Graham said. "This kind of litigation is time consuming and expensive and diverts everyone's attention."

With the settlement, Unitas Management can renew efforts to market the legacy of a player judged one of the best and most admired in the history of pro football, although his name is not well-known by younger fans, marketing experts said.

Contracts to put the Unitas name on memorabilia and in advertising could capitalize on a recent movement away from using current sports heroes who demand huge sums of money and are sometimes tainted by scandal, said David Warschawski, founder and president of a marketing and branding agency in Baltimore.

Sports legend

"I'd certainly put Unitas in the mix as one of the enduring sports legends who could easily be leveraged from a marketing standpoint," Warschawski said. "He's a sports icon."

Unitas Jr. said yesterday that he felt "vindicated" by the settlement. Unitas Sr. formed the company with his son after other failed business dealings had left the retired athlete $3 million in debt.

"It was a terrible mess," Unitas Jr. said of the recent lawsuit, "but I basically accomplished my father's will and that was for me to have my company back and to continue to represent his rights in business.

"This has just been wild and crazy and frustrating," he said. "I have been emotionally and physically drained by this. It has disrupted our entire family."

Unitas Sr. had five children with the former Dorothy Jean Hoelle, whom he met in high school in Pittsburgh. They married in 1954 and divorced in 1972. She died in May 2002, four months before her former husband. Unitas had three children with the former Sandra Lemon, whom he married near the end of his playing career.

Unitas Jr. said he still has a contract with CMG Worldwide, which represents the families and estates of deceased celebrities such as Babe Ruth and Marilyn Monroe. The dispute over the estate landed in court five months after Unitas Sr.'s death.

CMG estimated the management company was losing $250,000 a year while it was in legal limbo, according to Unitas Jr.

"They know I'm back in control and that I know what I'm doing," he said of CMG. "Now that this is all behind me, I need to forge ahead."

Unitas Jr. said that although he wouldn't interfere with the naming of Towson University's stadium, a second contract to put the Unitas name on university T-shirts and other items will not be renewed when it expires. He said the connection with Towson has created confusion because his father didn't go to school there. Unitas Sr. attended the University of Louisville in Kentucky.

Sandra Unitas could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Deals in the works

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