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Retired cornerback gouged on commissions may not get his day in court

The New York Court of Appeals indicated that the NFL's Darrelle Revis may have to navigate “arbitration island” in a dispute with his former agents.

ALBANY, N.Y. (CN) — Darrelle Revis, one of the greatest shutdown cornerbacks to play football, is on the precipice of having his legal challenge against his former sports agents shut down by New York’s high court.

Only a few judges spoke during the 30-minute argument session at the New York Court of Appeals, but those who did seemed to side with a pair of agents who have claim that, under the NFL Players Association rules, the endorsement deal they signed with Revis is bound by arbitration.

Revis brought the suit in 2016 against sports agents Jonathan Feinsod and Neil Schwartz, the latter of whom had served as the football superstar's contract adviser ever since Revis signed with the New York Jets in 2007, saying they quietly reworked his contract to fraudulently claim half of Revis’ money from endorsing a beverage company’s products.

The mark-up in commissions allegedly came as Revis was preparing for the 2015 Super Bowl during his single season with the New England Patriots. Months later, after the Patriots beat the Seattle Seahawks, Revis had rejoined the Jets, signing a five-year deal worth $70 million and guaranteeing $35 million and was awash in new endorsement deals.

It wasn’t until 2016 that Revis claims he learned his two agents had increased their commissions on from 10% to 50% and kept him in the dark regarding the proceeds from the Healthy Beverage endorsement. Revis fired the pair and went to state court a few months later.

Part of the legal hangup is whether, as Revis claims, the sports agents asked him to initial each page of the endorsement addendum with the Healthy Beverage company to endorse a line of teas without ever explaining the fine print. Revis alleges that Schwartz was not only his sports agent but also his lawyer.  

Schwartz and Feinsod, who still operate as sports agents to this day and represent several high-profile NFL players, claim they never acted as Revis’ attorney but had acted only as his sports agent. As a result, they had no duty to run through the fine print of the endorsement with Revis.

The suit so far has not gone well for Revis, who retired in 2018. After the trial court quickly remanded it to arbitration, the state appellate division upheld that move in a 3-2 decision, writing that the football player had agreed in his contract to arbitrate “gateway” questions and that courts had no authority to decide such issues.

For the two dissenting judges in that decision, however, they noted that the agreement between Revis and Schwartz included mandatory arbitration only to resolve disputes over the meaning of enforcement of the agreement itself and did not cover addendums like the endorsement. They also noted it was unclear whether Schwartz had acted as Revis’ attorney or as his agent.

Mark Levinstein, an attorney at Williams & Connolly. (Screenshot via courthouse News)

Revis’ attorney Mark Levinstein said Wednesday the case was clearly one of fraud since the endorsement addendum never mentioned arbitration, and the sports agents rushed Revis through signing it.

“There’s no way you can look at this Healthy Beverage agreement and think that Mr. Revis would have thought that he had agreed to arbitrate this,” he argued. “There is nothing in writing that says that, the Healthy Beverage agreement has no arbitration clause, and that’s where you have to start.”

On questioning from Judge Jenny Rivera, attorney Mario Aieta of Duane Morris, who represents the two agents, said the main issue is whether the rules of the American Arbitration Association and the NFL apply to the representation agreement. “That is the issue to grapple with,” Aieta said, noting that Revis signed an SRA or standard representation that places the decision of arbitrability in the hands of the arbitrator.

Aieta pointed out that the only place where the 10% provision appears is in the SRA, not in the separate endorsement agreement that Revis signed with the Healthy Beverage company, and further that the endorsement agreement never guaranteed legal services.  

“The line in the SRA that refers to this separate agreement says ‘marketing and endorsement.’ It doesn’t say anything about legal services,” Aieta noted. “Marketing and endorsement is, of course, are the things that football agents, sports agents, do for their clients.”

But Levinstein argued that the SRA containing the arbitration clause was essentially boiler plate, and the endorsement agreement was clearly separate. “Everyone understood it was limited to this labor context, where Mr. Revis had to sign that contract if he wanted anybody to represent him,” he said.

According to the website Spotrac, which tracks sporting contracts and salary caps, Schwartz & Feinsod continue to represent several NFL players, including cornerback Janoris Jenkins and left tackle Taylor Decker. They operate the agency AMDG Sports.

Like many sports agents, the pair have received some shade from fans and some online sports blogs for their tough tactics. Schwartz and Feinsod were also sued by one of their former employees, who later represented Revis, after they allegedly failed to pay him for job-related expenses and to help scout NFL players for five years.

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