Game changer

But among the hundreds of lawyers seeking to capitalize on the recent frenzy, Hausfeld is, in many ways, the most controversial. A small, balding man who wears bowties and talks so softly his wife says she feels like a "lip reader" at the dinner table, he nonetheless has participated in a disproportionate number of legal knife fights; after 37 years, he was fired from his previous firm via a note left on his chair. Hausfeld is perhaps best described as a legal activist. In 1998, he wrested $1.25 billion from Swiss banks on behalf of Holocaust survivors seeking to reclaim their dormant assets. Hausfeld doesn't go as far as to compare NFL linemen with concentration camp victims, but he does frame the cases in the same way. "There is no comparison in terms of the gravity of the evil," he says. "What you need to do is disconnect the gravity of the evil but still look at the magnitude or the systemic nature of the wrong."

Hausfeld has gained a following among some athletes and reformers as the man who can end the exploitation. "He kind of brings that David versus Goliath thing," O'Bannon says. But it hasn't always worked out that way. One group of NFL greats believes Hausfeld drew them in with promises of taking on the NFL in the same way he once took on Texaco and Exxon, only to sell them out.

"I thought he was sent from God to help us," said Joe DeLamielleure, the Hall of Fame Buffalo Bills offensive lineman and one of Hausfeld's former clients. "Then I realized he was the devil."

ALL THE PEOPLE who know Hausfeld -- his friends, current and former colleagues, even his wife, Marilyn -- shake their heads in amazement at the idea of him presiding over some of the most momentous sports cases in history. Sports is essentially a foreign language to him. At one point during the O'Bannon trial, Hausfeld referred to the Nike swoosh as a "swish," then attributed the famous logo to Adidas. "When did they change the swish to stripes?" he asked his paralegal, Jim Mitchell. A few years ago, Hausfeld's associates bought him a copy of "Football for Dummies" while Mitchell gave him Football 101 classes on everything from how the draft works to the history of the collective bargaining agreement. "He's come really far: I mean, when I first started working for him I don't think he knew what a touchdown was," said Swathi Bojedla, a 28-year-old associate in Hausfeld's firm. Bojedla, who grew up in Buffalo and still has Bills season tickets, says she frequently finds herself sprinting down the hall with Wikipedia bios to give to her boss when another famous potential client calls.

"Who's Oscar Robertson?" Hausfeld asked Bill Isaacson, a prominent antitrust lawyer involved in the O'Bannon case, one afternoon.

"Michael, he's an incredibly big deal!" Isaacson replied.

Hausfeld takes the ribbing good-naturedly and acknowledges that he knows next to nothing about sports. He says he thinks it might actually help him relate to his famous clients. "It adds to the relationship because they know I'm not responding to them out of sports admiration, I'm responding to them as a person," he says.

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