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Buffalo Bills and team's Alumni Foundation split over logo, control

It's not a divorce, but the Buffalo Bills and the team's alumni association are separating.

As part of the split, the Buffalo Bills Alumni Foundation will remain an independent organization.

But it can't use the team's logo on its website or in its communications anymore. And the team will no longer provide direct funding to the association, though it will continue to support the organization's work and its members.

Instead, the team will invest more in its own alumni department, which aims to keep former players in close contact with the team. It's part of a leaguewide move among NFL teams to handle alumni relations in-house.

"It's not a matter of dissatisfaction; it's a way to uplift and bring recognition to what they've already started, and to continue that tradition and add resources to it," said Marlon Kerner, the team's director of player engagement and alumni, who played cornerback for the Bills for several seasons in the 1990s.

The standoff has exposed a generational gap between the association, whose leaders include a number of ex-players from the team's earlier years who remained in Buffalo after their playing days, and some recent retirees who no longer live in the area.

But leaders of the alumni group  questioned the Bills' attempt to take control, saying it threatened the organization's legacy.

"Our intent is we will continue as we are," said Booker Edgerson, a Bills Wall of Fame cornerback from the team's American Football League championship era in the 1960s who serves as foundation president.

The Buffalo Bills Alumni Association soon will change its logo, and its website, to remove the team's logo. The move comes at the request of the team.

The association, formally known as the Buffalo Bills Alumni Foundation Inc., was founded in 1998 as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization.

The foundation raised $129,264 but spent $134,458, mostly on donations and grants, in the 2016 tax year, according to its most recent financial disclosure statement. The group raises money for various local charities, primarily through a celebrity golf tournament and other events held over the course of the group's annual Alumni Weekend.

"The Bills have always been very supportive of us doing these things," Edgerson said.

Kerner estimated that the Bills' support for the foundation – direct funding, tickets and parking passes, covering the cost of travel for out-of-town alumni when they returned to Buffalo for events – was worth more than $100,000 annually.

The sponsorship brochure for the association's 2016 Alumni Weekend highlights those ties. The flyer features classic and current versions of the Bills logo, photos of the stadium and Hall of Fame honorees who played on the Bills.

The Alumni Foundation, however, is not run out of the team's corporate offices, and its officers are not Bills employees.

The arrangement worked well for everyone, association leaders said, until team officials in recent years made it clear they wanted more involvement in alumni relations.

This is the new Buffalo Bills Alumni Association logo, replacing one that included the Bills' "standing buffalo" and "charging buffalo." (Image courtesy the association)

The Bills in 2015 hired Kerner as the team's director of alumni, to improve the ties between the team and its former players.

Kerner's hiring came shortly after the league started its NFL Legends Community program, which publicizes the benefits available to former players. The organization, launched in 2013, also helps ex-players stay engaged with the league by, for example, connecting alumni with young players for mentoring purposes.

"The NFL in a sense is trying to do that with all the teams," said Jeff Nixon, an active association member who played defensive back for the Bills in the late 1970s and early 1980s. "It's all under the 'Legends Community.' "

Kerner said it's natural, given the amount of financial support the team provides to the foundation, for the Bills to want more say in how that money is spent. Kerner also said the Bills have more resources to directly manage contact with players, requests for player appearances, player requests for assistance and other matters because the team employs dedicated staff.

He said this is especially true in the case of reconnecting with younger alumni, many of whom left Buffalo after their playing days and who aren't involved with the foundation. There are about 1,200 Bills alumni from over the team's years.

"As an organization, looking at it, we started to realize we're not reaching the guys, no fault to anyone," Kerner said.

The Alumni Foundation rejected the Bills' offer to fold the group into the team. Edgerson said the foundation has a track record of success, contributing $2.5 million over two decades to area charities. The group in January made the largest donation in its history, $100,000, to Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center to support prostate cancer research.

The association also brings together scores of former players for its Alumni Weekend and other events. There are about 45 former Bills who live in the Buffalo and Rochester areas, Edgerson said, and they are the most active in the group's work.

"Their mission is different from ours," Edgerson said of the team-led alumni efforts, "but it appears they are stepping on the toes of what we do."

All of the foundation's board members are from the 1960s, the 1970s or the early 1980s, according to its website.

Some active association members say the team appears to favor players from the Super Bowl era of the 1990s, or later, at the expense of retirees from years past. The team employs a number of those players, and former linebacker Darryl Talley serves as a regional Legends representative.

"He was always about taking care of those guys, and catering to them," said Nixon, referring to recently ousted Bills President Russ Brandon. Nixon, who has written critical blog posts about the league's handling of player concussions, said he never received a response from Brandon after contacting him about a job with the team.

Kerner rejects the assertion of favoritism.

Steve Christie, the former placekicker on some of the Bills' best teams in the 1990s, lives in Florida now and is not an active member of the Alumni Association. He said he appreciates the efforts by the Bills to maintain connections with alumni like him – Christie returned last fall for a ceremony honoring the 25th anniversary of the Comeback Game – and he praised the work of Kerner and others in the team office. He said he wasn't aware of the controversy and wonders what is behind this split.

"If there's a rift, why? What is the concern and why, now, do they want to take it over?" Christie said.

Edgerson said the association reluctantly agreed to give up use of the Bills' logo and will replace it on the website, letterhead and anywhere else it is used.

The foundation's logo had the Bills' "standing buffalo" and "charging buffalo" emblems on a shield. The website also has large images of current and vintage Bills helmets.

Asked why the team wanted the association to change its logo, Kerner said the Bills didn't want to confuse anyone about whether the group is an arm of the team.

He said the team will maintain its relationship with the foundation, continuing to provide free tickets and parking passes as requested. He also said, in lieu of making a direct contribution to the group, the Bills will make about $40,000 in charitable donations on behalf of its alumni and will seek input on the recipients from the association.

"The local guys will always be included in whatever we do," Kerner said. "There's no competing – we're not going to say, 'This is our event, and this is your event.' "

Edgerson and Nixon said the foundation isn't cutting ties with the team, either.

"We're always going to be supportive of them," Edgerson said, "because, hey, I'm a Buffalo Bill, and nothing can change that."

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