Family, judge clash over care and assets of aging ex-Detroit Lions star Lem Barney

They said he could out-run, out-catch and out-think every receiver he faced in 11 years with the Detroit Lions. Free Press sportswriters have rated Lem Barney the fourth-best player in Detroit Lions' history.

But Barney's glory years ended in 1977. Now, the former superstar can barely say "yes" or "no," and he can't get out of bed. In court documents, Barney is listed not as a retired Detroit Lions superstar, not as a longtime community relations executive with major corporations in Detroit, not as backup singer for Marvin Gaye's 1971 Motown hit "What's Going On?" but instead with an ominous label: "Legally Incapacitated Individual."

Former Detroit Lions owner Martha Ford and Lions Hall of Famer Lem Barney on the field before the game at Ford Field on Sunday, Sept. 29, 2019.
Former Detroit Lions owner Martha Ford and Lions Hall of Famer Lem Barney on the field before the game at Ford Field on Sunday, Sept. 29, 2019.

Like countless other former football players, from high school to the pros, Barney endured repeated head impacts, concussion after concussion. Apart from his football injuries, Barney, at 78, is like millions of aging Americans, sadly declining, mentally and physically. Also, like too many others, Barney is mired in a struggle that he hardly understands. Contentious family members have repeatedly sought control of his care, which also means control of his assets, including a big check that he may soon receive from the National Football League. As things stand, a lawyer that Barney has never met will cash that check.

Adding to the half dozen attorneys and at least that many family members focused on Barney's feeble future are two household names: former Detroit mayor Dave Bing, a legend with the Detroit Pistons, and former Detroit Lions star Lomas Brown, who these days is the Lions color commentator on WJR-AM radio. Both are lifelong friends of Barney. Both say they've spent long hours as co-guardians, looking after their old buddy's welfare, which court records confirm. Both say they are deeply frustrated.

This fall, a three-year fight over Barney’s care and finances is at a turning point. In a hearing Tuesday, Barney’s son in Texas sought to wrest control away from the Michigan guardian, a lawyer in Clarkston appointed by a judge. In a Zoom appearance, Bing rooted for the son. Yet, in an interview before the hearing, Brown told the Free Press that Barney was a victim "really of elder abuse by his own kids." And the judge recounted his reservations about giving guardianship back to Barney's son, Lemuel Barney III, after the son, as well as Barney's daughter LaTrece Barney, failed in their duties as previous co-guardians and had their powers suspended early this year. Adding to the pathos? Last year, the judge suspended Lem Barney’s own original choice of guardian, his second wife, Jacqueline. Barney's children, by his first wife, bear long-standing animus toward the woman known as Jacci Barney, going so far as to contend in court filings that, on the one hand, they believe that their father never married her, and on the other, filing a divorce complaint on behalf of their father if indeed the couple did marry.

Lawyers and Oakland County Probate Judge Daniel O'Brien listen as the son of ailing ex-Detroit Lions star Lem Barney, Lemuel Barney III of Houston, Texas, says via Zoom that he wants to be reinstated as his father's guardian, at a hearing in Pontiac on Sept. 26, 2023. Former Detroit mayor Dave Bing, also on the Zoom conference, said he favored reinstating the son. But the senior Barney's guardian, attorney Jon Munger of Clarkston, reminded O'Brien of problems with Barney's son when he was co-guardian with Bing.

Lem Barney's plight is a teachable moment for all, say experts on elder care and end-of-life directives. All of us, they say, especially those at retirement age, should undertake to learn not just about how to afford retirement but also about planning for the awful possibility of someday being in Lem Barney's condition, whether or not we played football. Probate court advice is on websites in virtually every Michigan county, explaining ways to choose responsible family members or friends for decisions about health care and finances. Those who fail to plan, or whose friends and family members abuse their roles, may have control taken away by judges and handed to lawyers or other professionals.

NFL's big payout

The Michigan Legislature this year has considered a package of bills aimed at reforming the state's laws on guardians, who manage care and living situations for incapacitated people; and the laws on conservators, who handle finances. The bills include recommendations from the Elder Abuse Task Force of Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, and they have bipartisan support. One advocate is state Sen. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake, who has said that Michiganders need safeguards to protect their rights and property from abusive professional guardians and conservators. But the bills don't address the potential for abusive conduct and asset theft by family members.

Before Tuesday's hearing, Bing told the Free Press — through his spokesman, Bob Warfield, a top aide when Bing was Detroit's mayor — that he’s concerned about "half-million-dollar payouts" from the NFL, which Lem Barney and scores of other NFL retirees are expecting “any day now” from a class-action concussion lawsuit. The lawsuit laid bare the symptoms of thousands of retired players, from splitting headaches and blurred vision to full-blown dementia. Extensive studies of donated human brains conducted at Boston University have found that serious brain damage, called CTE, was found in 99% of the brains of NFL players, 91% of college football players, and 21% of high school football players, according to online summaries of the research.

In the landmark case with the NFL, whose settlement is valued at $1.2 billion, Lem Barney was known a decade ago for being an outspoken plaintiff, going so far as to tell high school football players in Southfield that if he could replay his life, he wouldn't play football. Bing says he worries that the payout will end up in the hands of the many lawyers involved with Barney’s probate case in Oakland County. In Tuesday's hearing, Bing said control and care should be returned “to the family.” Still, Bing acknowledges that the case has become increasingly contentious, and he said in court documents that he resigned as a co-guardian this year because he no longer felt able to help his friend.

This photo shows the house in Commerce Township of retired Detroit Lions star Lem Barney, where neither he nor his wife,  Jacqueline Barney, are living. Both are in nursing centers, guardianship lawyers said at a hearing in Pontiac on Sept. 26, 2023.
This photo shows the house in Commerce Township of retired Detroit Lions star Lem Barney, where neither he nor his wife, Jacqueline Barney, are living. Both are in nursing centers, guardianship lawyers said at a hearing in Pontiac on Sept. 26, 2023.

Midgets in the attic

Another lifelong friend of Lem Barney, retired Lions star and radio personality Brown, did not appear at Tuesday's hearing. But Brown told the Free Press this month that family members have abused Lem Barney, physically and financially. Brown, like Bing, had been a co-guardian but resigned from his official responsibilities this year, after Lem Barney’s second wife, Jacqueline Barney, who had been co-guardian, began showing signs of mental illness.

"Jacci got delusional," Brown said. "She started calling the police all the time, saying midget people were living in her attic or coming in through the foundation. And she started accusing me of stuff," Brown said.

Jacci Barney even called the Lions front office to disparage Brown, and "that's when I had to step away" from being co-guardian, he said.

Jacqueline Barney is now in a “locked-down facility” for long-term care in Oakland County, her lawyer said. Bing accuses her in court documents of causing the disappearance of about $350,000 in Lem Barney's assets. And Bing, along with Lem Barney's children, also allege in court documents that Jacqueline Barney and Lem Barney might not be married, implying that she should have no claim on his assets. But other court documents show that Lem Barney, in 2018 as his health began to fail, requested that Jacci Barney be his guardian. And Lem Barney's current guardian, Clarkston lawyer Jon Munger, appointed by the judge, said that he'd obtained a copy of the couple's marriage license, "which has been widely circulated."

At Tuesday’s hearing, Oakland County Probate Judge Daniel O’Brien said he regretted the way that Lem Barney ended up in Texas. Roughly a year ago, with Lem Barney and Jacci Barney apparently doing well together at their house in Commerce Township, the judge allowed Lem Barney to travel with Jacci to Houston to visit his daughter LaTrece Barney and son Lemuel Barney III. All involved assured the court that the ailing Lem Barney could return to Michigan in two weeks. But once there, LaTrece Barney took her father away from Jacci — the word "kidnapped" was used on social media to describe this. LaTrece took her father to the house of her mother, Martha Barney, Lem Barney's ex-wife, and refused to return her father to Michigan, even after being ordered by O'Brien to do so. O'Brien held her in contempt but could not force her to return her father, court documents show.

When Jacci confronted LaTrece, police were called and "things went downhill from there," Munger said, citing the ultimate involvement of Texas Adult Protective Services, whose investigators ordered that Lem Barney be moved to a nursing center in Houston. At Tuesday's hearing, O'Brien asked Munger whether his ward, Lem Barney, should be moved from the nursing center to some other location, perhaps one near family members in Mississippi who aren’t seeking control, or to a nursing home in Michigan. Lem Barney's condition, with "bedsores at stage 4," makes that impossible, Munger said.

Brick wall of law

That leaves just one option, urged by Bing and Barney’s son, as well as by Barney’s daughter who was viewing the hearing via Zoom from parts unknown — she refused to reveal her address, which clearly irked O'Brien, who is Oakland County's presiding judge of guardianships, conservatorships and mental health. They all urged moving Lem Barney from the nursing center back to the house of his ex-wife. Lem Barney’s son, Lem Barney III, said at the hearing via Zoom that he had recently moved into that house, "my mother’s home," and he admitted after verbal nudges by the judge that he was going through a divorce. Lem Barney III then began raising his voice, complaining that his father should "be at home," venting well after the judge asked him repeatedly to stop.

O’Brien raised his own voice to restore order, then said he was reluctant to hand guardianship back to Lem Barney III and equally worried about moving Barney in with his ex-wife. Lem Barney III had failed as a guardian, having had "a casual relationship with the truth, at best," Munger reminded the court. Lem Barney's ex-wife, Martha Barney, had a far worse history of misconduct. She'd been reported by Texas Adult Protective Services as having struck her ex-husband when he visited family members at her home last fall.

The judge said he was vexed that Oakland County Probate Court has been forced to oversee the welfare of an incapacitated person 1,300 miles away. "We've tried to have all this transferred to Texas," where a guardian could visit Lem Barney to monitor his care and finances, O'Brien said.

"Texas won't accept it. We ran into a brick wall," he recalled, filling in a new lawyer involved in the rambling case, Detroit-based Melvin Jefferson.

With Bing and the family members imploring the judge, O’Brien issued an order. He gave Lem Barney's guardian, the Clarkston lawyer Munger, one month to sort out whether the house of Lem Barney’s ex-wife can become a family-friendly refuge or, instead, might deteriorate into a dungeon of elder abuse for the ailing ex-Lions star. The judge commanded that Munger find an investigative agency in Texas to evaluate whether the ex-wife and son can be trusted.

As the hearing wound down, Lem Barney III made a final and indisputable point: "Time is of the essence. We don't know how much longer my dad will live."

Free Press sports writer Dave Birkett contributed to this report.

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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Dispute in care of ex-Detroit Lion Lem Barney star hits turning point