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Bars Face NFL's Legal Blitz : League's Game Plan Is to Tackle Screenings of Blacked-Out Contests; Targeted Owners Just Trying to Avoid a Sack

October 24, 1994|MICHAEL GRANBERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ORANGE — Carlos Suarez contends that he's being exploited by a big and powerful adversary, one that has millions of dollars and teams of attorneys "ready to put the squeeze on until I pay."

Suarez's opponent has forced him to hire his own attorney or risk losing as much as $200,000 in U.S. District Court, where last week the National Football League filed suit against Suarez and 19 other owners of area bars and restaurants.

"I'll probably pay them something," said Suarez, who owns the Player's Club on Main Street here. "I can't afford not to. I just don't need the hassle. I feel like David going up against Goliath."

For years, the NFL has targeted bars and restaurants that somehow found a way of showing games that did not sell out 72 hours before kickoff and thus were blacked out within 75 miles of where the game was being played. But in recent weeks, the league has been especially vigilant.

Since the start of the football season, similar suits have been filed in Cleveland, Miami, Detroit, Houston and New Orleans. In each area, the league alleges that bar and restaurant owners unlawfully "intercepted, received and/or exhibited" one of its games.

In an era of spiraling costs and escalating player salaries, league officials say they have to be ever protective of their primary source of revenue--television--even if it means hiring former FBI agents to ferret out violators of the blackout rule.

Unbeknown to Suarez, his problems with the NFL actually started Sept. 25, when his satellite dish picked up a "raw feed" of a blacked-out Los Angeles Raiders home game.

He says he's also being sued for a second incident Oct. 2, when the first 25 minutes of a blacked-out Los Angeles Rams game in Anaheim Stadium popped up on television screens in the Player's Club.

Like everyone else named in the 21-page action, Suarez pays a fee to receive NFL games via satellite, and, he says, it's the league's obligation--not his--to scramble the picture on blacked-out telecasts.

"To cite me for showing the first 25 minutes of a game that they were obligated to scramble, well, that sounds to me like entrapment," he said. "The fact that they committed a technical error is no reason for me to be sued."

And, technically, said Frank Hawkins, legal counsel for the NFL, he is right.

"But to our knowledge, there were no encryption failures during that week," Hawkins said from his New York office. "We don't think it happened that way, based on our preliminary review before filing the lawsuit."

In any event, Hawkins said, Suarez is bound by law not to show any portion of a blacked-out game, regardless of how he receives it.

"If a 500-seat bar shows games and charges for it, and you end up with 1,000 empty seats," which is often the case at both Anaheim Stadium and the Los Angeles Coliseum, "then it hurts the NFL," Hawkins said.

He contended that some of the bars named in the suit had used elaborate, black-market equipment to pick up Channel 39, an NBC affiliate in San Diego that often shows Raiders home games. Such was the case Sept. 25.

"As long as you're using an ordinary home antenna and not charging admission," meaning a cover charge, "then we have no problem with it," Hawkins said. "But at one of the bars cited, our expert said, 'They have the biggest mother UHF antenna I've ever seen,' oriented to San Diego for one purpose--to break the blackout."

Named in last week's action were the following Orange County establishments: Blackie's by the Sea in Newport Beach; Lamppost Pizza in Orange; Lockeroom Sports Bar in Orange; Out of Bounds in Huntington Beach; Roundtable Pizza in Orange; Texas Loosey's in Fullerton; the Warehouse in Newport Beach; and Suarez's Player's Club. Twelve Los Angeles-area bars also were cited.

Suarez later learned that the NFL had hired former FBI agents to check on his establishment and the others named in the suit in an attempt to catch violators. The suit alleges copyright infringement and violations of the Federal Communications Act and asks for $200,000 from each of the 20 bars.

"Can you believe it?" Suarez said. "They were using (former) FBI agents. Maybe they could hire the KGB next."

Hawkins conceded that the league had hired former FBI agents in gathering data for the suit but said it would be unfair to use the words monitor or spy in describing their method of investigation.

"The word monitor is unnecessarily pejorative," he said. "We hired former FBI agents to visit the bars. There was no big brother here."

But Suarez and the other Orange County merchants interviewed last week say the NFL's tactics feel like Big Brother. Some complain that the league has done a poor job of explaining the do's and don'ts of its complicated policies.

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