Never-ending game

Why Lamar Smith can never get out of the courtroom.

Just when Lamar Smith thought it was safe to rush past a courthouse, he's been tackled again. The former Seahawks running back, who settled four civil and criminal cases in the last two years, is being sued anew by one of those former plaintiffs—ex-teammate Mike Frier. Partially paralyzed from a 1994 auto accident in which Smith was the driver, Frier last year agreed to accept a minimum $1 million and maximum $4 million settlement to be paid in installments over seven years from Smith's National Football League earnings. Frier then became a cheerleader of sorts for the man who put him in a wheelchair, hoping Smith would land a contract big enough to pay his debt. Things brightened in March when free agent Smith signed a four-year, $7.1 million deal (salary and bonuses) with the New Orleans Saints. But the erstwhile teammates had a quick falling-out.

Under his payment agreement with Frier, Smith was to hand over 50 percent of any signing or performance bonuses and 35 percent of his net earnings. Upon signing with the Saints, he was given $750,000 of his contract money. Frier requested a 50 percent cut. Smith refused.

According to Frier's attorney, Kevin Coluccio, the $750,000 was a signing bonus—thus Frier was due half of that, or $375,000. But Smith says the money was paid as salary, not as a bonus, and he's willing to give up only 35 percent (or $262,500) of it. "There's no dispute" that Smith owes the basic 35 percent, says Coluccio, and the player has in fact written a check for $278,904 (with an extra $16,404 offered in an apparent compromise bid). But Frier has not deposited the check since Smith insists that Frier, by endorsing it, would concede the $112,500 difference.

A copy of Smith's contract lists his guaranteed "yearly salary" as $1.5 million (increasing to almost $2 million by 2001). Half of that was doled out to Smith as an "advance on 1998 salary" according to a copy of a Saints payroll check. While Smith considers that to be salary, period, NFL rules state that "any salary advance paid on a guaranteed basis will be counted as a signing bonus." Therein lies the rub, leading to the lawsuit filed in April.

Smith does have the potential to earn hefty bonus dollars later this season, according to his contract. He can pick up $100,000, for example, by making the Pro Bowl team, and $200,000 for gaining 700 yards, with an additional $100,000 to $300,000 for every 100 yards he adds on top of that. Should he gain—quite unlikely—1,500 yards or more this year, his rushing bonuses would total $1.65 million. But Frier obviously prefers to get the money currently in hand rather than rely on Smith's running game this year.

A King County court will now settle the issue in what is familiar territory for Smith. Besides reaching the Frier agreement last year, Smith pleaded guilty to vehicular assault for the Kirkland car crash and served about half of a 120-day sentence. In a bad-debt lawsuit, he admitted violating NCAA rules by accepting $10,000 from a sports agent while in college but successfully argued that since the payment was illegal, he didn't have to pay the agent back. Smith also settled a "sex by deception" case brought by a Kirkland woman who claimed she was sexually assaulted after Smith slipped into her darkened bedroom and pretended to be her boyfriend. He paid the woman $100,000 to end the case. As a relieved Smith remarked in May after signing with the Saints: "My accident, the legal stuff, it was a nightmare, a four-year nightmare for me." Four, and counting.

 
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