Jim (Yazoo) Smith's 11-year battle against the National Football League and the Washington Redskins challenging the legality of the NFL draft finally may have ended following a decision by a U.S. District Court judge in Washington to reduce Smith's damage award from $276,000 to $12,000.
In 1976, Judge William B. Bryant awarded $276,000 to Smith, a No. 1 draft choice by the Redskins in 1968, after ruling that the draft was illegal because it violated federal antitrust laws. Smith, a defensive back who suffered a broken neck that ended his career during a game in his rookie season, had sought $4.2 million in damages.
In suing the league and the Redskins, Smith claimed that the annual NFL draft violated antitrust laws by illegally binding a player to one team and keeping him from bargaining for more money with other teams.
Bryant, in his 1976 ruling, agreed. He said without the draft, Smith possibly could have signed a contract for more money that also could have guaranteed payment despite injury.
The NFL appealed Bryant's ruling to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which allowed the ruling concerning the league's liability for an antitrust violation to stand. But the Circuit Court said Bryant erred in calculating Smith's actual damages from the violation, and directed the judge to reconsider the amount.
Bryant arrived at the original $92,000 award (trebled automatically under antitrust law to $296,000) by using a complicated formula based mainly on salary earned by Redskin defensive back Pat Fischer over a three-year period. But the circuit court ruled that Smith had not proven sufficiently that he could have negotiated a three-year contract as a rookie, and disallowed Bryant's formula.
On Dec. 8, Bryant determined that Smith's damages were $4,000, which automatically trebled to $12,000.
Although an appeal of Bryant's latest ruling is possible, sources close to the case said there was an excellent chance Smith would end his legal battle.
As the winning plaintiff, Smith also is entitled to reasonable attorney's fees. Bryant has not yet made a determination on that amount.
Smith, reached at his Tacoma, Wash., home, said he wasn't sure whether he would appeal the ruling. But he admitted he could use the $12,000 "very badly."
"I'm junking it, digging through garbage cans finding aluminium cans and whatever I can to resell and make a living," he said. "I have three kids, a family, and I need the money.
"I'm not saying this for sympathy. It's just the truth. I'm not going to rebel against the decision. Judge Bryant is a very honorable man and I'm sure he gave it a lot of thought. I have to live with it, although I can't say I'm satisfied with it.
"Here I am, trying to fight big business. How much of a chance will I have of gaining anything if I appeal? The whole NFL system stems from millions for defense and not a cent for tribute. In my mind, there is no question about the evidence. If you let the facts speak for themselves, there can be no justification for the conclusion. Someone is convicted of doing something wrong and they've been proven guilty, so there should be some realistic compensation for the one who has been the victim of the injustice."
Smith, who has a master's degree in counseling, was working for the City of Takoma as a youth counselor when his job was eliminated by budget cuts last Dec. 31. He said he grew frustrated looking for a new job in his area, and finally decided to "buy a truck and start junking. I'll do it until something better comes along."
Smith, who still has a surgical wire in his neck, said he is permanently partially disabled because of the neck injury. "That means I can't play football anymore," he said. Because of what he termed "various legal technicalities," he said he received only $7,600 of the $24,000 awarded to him in workman's compensation.
An NFL source said Smith was offered a "six-figure" out-of-court settlement early in the case, which was first filed in 1970. But Johnson said he was not aware of any settlement proposal, "and I would know if there was one."
Smith, who played for the University of Oregon, signed a one-year contract with the Redskins in 1968 that paid him $50,000: a $23,000 signing bonus, a $5,000 bonus for making the team and a $22,000 annual salary. According to court documents, Bryant arrived at the $4,000 figure by comparing Smith's income with that of Fischer, who made $54,000 that same season.
Bryant's original decision was based on the workings of the 1968 draft. But by 1976, the league had made enough significant changes in the draft to allow its continuance. Most notably, the rounds were reduced from 17 to 12; drafted players could sit out a year and then reenter the draft pool; and drafted players could play two years in the Canadian Football League and then negotiate with any NFL club, with the team that originally drafted him maintaining right of first refusal on any offer.
The league had argued that the draft was exempt from antitrust laws because it was part of the collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and the NFL Players Association. The league also contended that the draft was reasonable and indispensable in maintaining the competitive balance among the teams.