Gene Upshaw: Player and Director
A look at an NFL legend both on and off the playing field.
Gene Upshaw must have done something right because he had enemies on all sides of the player-management divide.
A group of current players, led by Baltimore kicker Matt Stover, were trying to throw him out of his job as head of the NFL Players Association.
Many retired players, led by Mike Ditka (like Upshaw a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame), complained the union was ignoring old-timers and that they did not have sufficient health benefits.
And NFL owners were so upset over the labor deal Upshaw and former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue negotiated that they opted out of it and set the league on a collision course with the players.
Upshaw, who died Thursday, was gruff with his enemies, had little patience with dissent and made the players union virtually his personal fiefdom. But it's undeniable that NFL players are much better off today than they were when he took over as union boss in the '80s.
In those days, free agency was only a wild dream, salaries were relatively meager and signing bonuses were something that first-round draft choices might have gotten but were unimaginable for most players.
The NFLPA, even after a seven-week strike in 1982 when Ed Garvey, Upshaw's predecessor as head of the NFLPA, ran the union, was no match for the powerful team owners before Upshaw moved into the job.
In 1987, the union's second in-season strike collapsed in a heap when management hired enough scab players to play three weeks of essentially exhibition games they counted in the regular standings. The euphemism used was "replacement players," but they were strike-breakers, plain and simple. The late Commissioner Pete Rozelle later acknowledged it was likely a mistake to play those games.
That seeming defeat only made Upshaw more determined to mobilize the players, however. And they did it in an unconventional way, de-certifying the union, winning a lawsuit that got them real free agency for the first time, then re-certifying the union and increasingly winning more benefits and salaries.
It could be argued -- has been argued, in fact -- that Upshaw's leadership of the players and success at the bargaining table has kept Tagliabue out of the Hall of Fame despite Tagliabue's legacy of increasing league revenues, building stadiums and avoiding labor strife. Many, including a lot of NFL owners, thought Tagliabue avoided labor strife only by giving in to Upshaw at the bargaining table.
The owners and players now are headed toward another showdown that Tagliabue's successor, Roger Goodell, and Upshaw's successor, whoever that may be, will have to defuse, with the clock ticking toward an uncapped year and the possibility of a league shutdown in 2011.
For one thing, veterans complain that rookies get too much of the salary pie under the current system, although Upshaw always maintained that the more money paid to rookies forced owners to pay more to veterans.
Nonetheless, NFL players still lag far behind baseball players in many contractual areas, not the least of which -- in a game with a huge injury toll -- is guaranteed contracts. Yet, the system in place, where many players get a big hunk of their salaries in up-front bonuses, in some regards could be considered as "guaranteed contracts light," because those big bonuses frequently force teams to keep players they might otherwise try to replace.
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
It will be intriguing to watch where the player-management relationship goes now, as the sides head toward another showdown with new leadership in both camps.
PFT: Defensive end finally finds a new team in San Diego — and for a honey of a deal that would be worth a max of $13.35 million.
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