NFL mourns death of Gene Upshaw
Aug. 21: Gene Upshaw, head of the NFL Players Association and former Oakland Raiders lineman, died of cancer Thursday at age 63. NBC's Brian Williams reports.
Gene Upshaw’s death could have an impact on the NFL’s future that is more far-reaching than would the passing of any other league figure.
Any owner, any player, any executive could shuffle off this mortal coil and — aside from the grief and the void — business as usual would quickly return or perhaps not be affected at all.
But not the executive director of the NFLPA. Not now.
In case you haven’t noticed — and we can’t blame you if you didn’t — NFL players and owners are both girding for a work stoppage.
The collective bargaining agreement the union and owners agreed to in March of 2006 was widely viewed as a knockout win for Upshaw and the NFLPA. It delivered the league’s players roughly 60 percent of all revenues generated by the league where previously, some revenues were kept out of the pot. Players are now deeper into the pockets of NFL owners than ever before with the salary cap per team rising from a projected $85.5 million in 2005 to $116 million this year.
That deal erased the longstanding perception that Upshaw was a persistent failure at getting his union fair deals.
It also led the NFL’s owners — unhappy with the ballooning amounts going to players — to exercise a loophole that will allow them to get out of the deal early. That move by owners means that unless a new deal is struck the 2010 season will be conducted without a salary cap and there will be no 2011 season.
The windfall from the 2006 CBA didn’t halt schisms within the union either.
In April, Ravens kicker Matt Stover sent an email to the NFLPA’s 31 other player representatives that called for a national search process to find a new executive director to replace Upshaw before the next CBA negotiations begin.
Meanwhile, the selection of Titans center Kevin Mawae as NFLPA president reportedly caused dissension between a group of players who believed Mawae was too close to Upshaw. That group reportedly would have preferred Eagles safety Brian Dawkins to be the new president.
During the post-Stover dustup, Upshaw said, “I will never leave until this deal is done.”
But now he is gone and, even though longtime general counsel Richard Berthelsen was named interim director, the move will soon be on to fill Upshaw’s position.
And it would seem Stover’s hope of conducting a national search to replace Upshaw will happen after all. This will undoubtedly unearth divergent opinions on which direction the union should go with Upshaw’s successor.
As for the owners, they will now see an opponent across the table in flux with a leadership void at the top. Remember, these aren’t people who came to own billion dollar football teams by failing to capitalize on weakened opponents.
Will the owners ultimately see a new executive director that is responsive to their complaints about spiraling costs (and a few other items)?
Upshaw certainly wasn’t. And he was preparing his union for a work stoppage.
“The way that (owners) are going all about this points directly to a lockout," Upshaw said at the Super Bowl in February. "I've made it clear to the owners that we're not accepting a deal that pays us less than we're already making.
“Where all of this ends up — I wish I had a crystal ball," Upshaw said. "I don't. But wherever it ends up, it will be fair for the players.”
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