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Big-league lawsuits lurk behind Tampa Bay's pro sports teams

Keeping score of the games played by Tampa Bay's pro sports teams is as easy as catching an infield popup compared to trying to follow all the lawsuits involving the franchises and their players.

Allegedly injured sports fans have sued teams and even individual players. Teams have sued over business deals that they say went astray. Team executives have sued after they have been shown the door.

There are shocking numbers of lawsuits against players — most notably against ex-Tampa Bay Buccaneers — for not honoring their financial debts.

It all makes you wonder: How do our teams have time to actually play a game?

Why do we care? Because pro sports make up a big and growing slice of the Tampa Bay business scene and an even bigger piece of area residents' entertainment wallet. While sports teams go out of their way to polish their image, court documents from lawsuits can shed some interesting and not always flattering light on events that rarely get much attention.

For sports fans, lawsuits offer a reminder that pro sports teams and players are made up of fallible people, even if they seem superhuman on the playing fields or just too cool in carefully crafted advertising campaigns.

Let's take a litigation tour by team:

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: What is it about former football players and their fumbling money management? Financial acumen among ex-Bucs apparently is no better and possibly worse than the rest of the NFL's alumni. Court documents show former Bucs kicker Martin Gramática was sued by Wells Fargo bank for falling behind on his home mortgage. B.J. Askew, the Bucs' 2009 starting fullback before an injury in a car wreck, not only faced mortgage foreclosure problems but also was sued by a New Jersey law firm for unpaid bills. Bank of America went after ex-running back Michael Pittman for unpaid mortgage payments on a house in Lutz, though he also had problems paying for another, glitzier Lutz home near the Cheval Golf & Country Club.

In 2006, then-star defensive end Simeon Rice ran into money trouble after buying a waterfront condo in Clearwater and allegedly failing to make timely payments on a $1 million-plus mortgage. Former defensive end Chidi Ahanotu was sued by a landlord for not paying his $4,500-a-month rent on a Harbour Island apartment. More recently, he was in court when the Solomon Law Group tried to get him to pay up on a legal debt.

Several lawsuits also have emerged involving fights at Bucs games. A fan sued the Tampa Sports Authority after off-duty cops allegedly pushed him around and Tasered him. Another fan filed suit against the Tampa Sports Authority and the stadium's security services, claiming that an assault by another fan could have been prevented with quicker intervention.

And Eva Rush, attending a Bucs-Giants game, sued the authority when she was allegedly injured after one fan pushed another into her.

Maybe the Bucs should recruit some of these fans for the field.

Tampa Bay Rays: Who knew attending a baseball game could be so dangerous? Our area baseball team faced multiple lawsuits from fans. Lauren Layton claimed that an unidentified fan tried to catch an Evan Longoria foul ball but then fell on her, breaking her back. One family said their son's hand was "entangled" and hurt in a Tropicana Field escalator. Another fan at the Trop sued visiting Philadelphia Phillies reliever J.C. Romero when, a lawsuit says, the fan was battered after razzing Romero about prior steroid use.

Rays players have not escaped litigation. Ex-Rays catcher Dioner Navarro was sued by his fired sports agent, StarTrust Management, for unpaid expenses.

Even the Rays resorted to the courts to try to recoup an investment. The team's ownership group tried to diversify its sports holdings by taking a stake in the fledgling United Football League franchise in Orlando known as the Florida Tuskers. When that deal soured, the Rays sued to retrieve $300,000 of its $600,000-plus stake.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Somehow our pro hockey players are staying out of the courts more often than our football and baseball players. But a few Lightning managers have been sued, and sued in turn, to resolve some issues. Brian Rogers, for example, former executive vice president of business operations, was fired in 2009 for cause. He countered with his own lawsuit contending he is owed $350,000 in unpaid salary. Last summer, former Lightning corporate sales chief Harry Hutt sued the team's ownership after the 66-year-old was demoted and replaced with a 37-year-old. The demotion allegedly came with the removal of $2 million worth of accounts, the lawsuit contends, thus setting up Hutt "to fail."

These cases from the Bucs, Rays and Lightning are mere highlights of a litigation Super Bowl among our sports teams. Spine surgeon Dr. Robert Nucci sued Tampa Bay Storm Partners last June, saying the Storm owners deceived Nucci into buying a worthless franchise. The former owners then sued Nucci, saying he had missed an $8.3 million payment on the team.

Storm general manager Tim Marcum separately sued Nucci, arguing he had not been paid all of his 2009 salary or half of his $12,000 housing allowance.

Even the on-again, off-again local soccer team, the Tampa Bay Rowdies, has had its time in court. The most basic of lawsuits filed against the franchise came from a Dallas apparel company that claimed it owned the Rowdies name.

The result? For now, the team has dumped its name in favor of the bland "FC Tampa Bay."

Maybe there's a silver lining to all these court battles. How about a new cable TV channel dedicated to covering the legal conflicts of our sports teams off the field?

Some contests would be more compelling than the local games we now watch.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8405.

Big-league lawsuits lurk behind Tampa Bay's pro sports teams 01/08/11 [Last modified: Saturday, January 8, 2011 11:31am]
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