NFL mourns Gene Upshaw, the architect of free agency
By Larry Weisman, USA TODAY
He led running backs on power sweeps, he led players through two strikes, through protracted lawsuits and into prosperity unimaginable a generation ago.
Now, the link between the ages, between a time when players had few rights and an era when the NFL's wealth flows freely to its blockers and tacklers, is gone.
Gene Upshaw, the executive director of the NFL Players Association since 1983, died Wednesday night at his vacation home in Lake Tahoe, Calif. He was 63 and had been diagnosed Sunday with pancreatic cancer. Funeral arrangements are pending. FIND MORE STORIES IN: California | Africa | Philadelphia Eagles | Pro Bowl | Oakland Raiders | Minnesota Vikings | Pro Football Hall of Fame | John Madden | NFL Players Association | Lake Tahoe | Gene Upshaw | Art Shell | Brian Dawkins | Tom Condon | Wake Forest University | Reggie White | Richard Berthelsen | Tim Davis | Greg Coleman
Before he became the first African American to head a major sports union, Upshaw played 15 years for the Oakland Raiders. The seven-time Pro Bowl pick at left guard was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1987 but his legacy stems more from the boardroom than the field.
"He brought free agency to the players and changed the entire structure of the NFL," said Tom Condon, a former player and union president who was Upshaw's friend of 30 years as well as his agent. "He was as important and powerful as the commissioner."
It was Condon who nominated Upshaw for executive director in 1983, and Upshaw was unanimously elected. His tenure would include a 15-day strike by players in 1987, a series of lawsuits aimed at achieving free agency and the eventual achievement of that aim with a negotiated settlement of a high-profile case in 1993.
In 1982, when players struck for 57 days and shut down the NFL for eight weeks, the average player salary was about $90,000. Last year: $1.75 million, with improvements in pension, benefits and health care.
"From where the union started to where it is today is leaps and bounds," said Brian Dawkins, the Philadelphia Eagles safety who serves on the union's executive committee.
Cincinnati Bengals receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, a player rep, agreed.
"I don't think the players of today realize how much he's done," he said. "Gene blazed the trail. He stood his ground for the players whether it was popular by public opinion or not."
Upshaw wanted to continue to lead but events conspired against him. On one front was a group of reps that wanted to begin the process of finding a successor, as the NFLPA's retirement age is 65. On the other was the recent move by NFL owners to terminate the current labor agreement. If not extended, it ends in 2011 and the salary cap disappears after the 2009 season.
Upshaw adamantly maintained he would stay on until a new deal could be reached. The NFLPA executive committee on Thursday appointed long-time in-house counsel, Richard Berthelsen, as interim executive director but may turn to a search firm to compile a list of candidates. The uncertainty threatens a key Upshaw principle â€” unity.
"Whatever you do, stay together. That was Gene's mantra," said Greg Coleman, a punter for 12 years in the NFL and the Minnesota Vikings player rep in the early 1980s, when Upshaw held that same post with the Raiders.
Coleman first got to know Upshaw when his roommate at Florida A&M, offensive lineman Henry Lawrence, was about to be selected by the Raiders in the first round of the 1974 draft. Phone calls came constantly from Upshaw, from coach John Madden, from tackle Art Shell. Coleman and Upshaw, it turned out, were fraternity brothers (Alpha Phi Alpha).
Coleman said Upshaw embodied the dream for black players at a time when the NFL had few African Americans as head coaches or in positions of authority.
?Over 60%% of the league was African American and there was so much talk about the lack of leadership from ?people who looked like us,??? he said. "There was a quiet pride we all felt when Gene accomplished what he did because it set a tone â€” you can do whatever you want to do with hard work." Era of players' unprecedented pleasure
Upshaw led the players as their union president through the '82 work stoppage, through a failed strike in 1987, through a series of legal maneuvers that accomplished in court what couldn't be gained on the picket line.
By decertifying itself in 1989, the NFLPA shifted the argument from labor law and into the antitrust area, where the NFL was vulnerable due to its restrictions on player movement.
?It was a very significant move on their part,? said Tim Davis, professor of law at Wake Forest University. ?It was a very effective strategy and Gene was a very effective leader at a turbulent time for the players association. They were able to secure a number of important rights for the players. It was a very courageous move.?
In 1993, a settlement of the case known as Reggie White v. NFL yielded the current system of free agency, allowing players movement and the teams to impose a salary cap to restrain their spending. The salary cap was $34.6 million in 1994, the first year it was instituted, and is currently $116 million. Player salaries and benefits eat up roughly 60% of NFL revenues, generally estimated at nearly $6 billion.
Those costs led owners to pull the plug on the labor extension they agreed to in 2006, saying the deal had become one-sided. Still, they appreciated Upshaw's knowledge of their financial underpinnings.
"His biggest asset was his understanding of the business of the game and you always knew that his concern for the game's best interests guided his actions," Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney said in a statement.
Dissent from retired players
If the owners think he got too much in the last deal, others said he accepted too little and was too close to management and former commissioner Paul Tagliabue.
"It has been because of Gene Upshaw that there have been so many benefits accruing to the players that they might not have gotten with a more adversarial relationship," said Matthew Mitten, director of the National Sports Law Institute at Marquette University.
Not everyone felt the love. Retired players began to demand increases in pension benefits and a relaxation of the rules governing disability claims. The arguments and criticisms of Upshaw and the union grew pointed. At one point Upshaw said of former Buffalo Bills guard Joe DeLamielleure, another Hall of Famer, "I'd like to break his neck."
DeLamielleure said he had almost no relationship at all with Upshaw and that their exchanges ?were all business and never personal. My sympathy goes to his family.? His perception of Upshaw, however, is unchanged.
"He did a wonderful job for the current guys but not for the guys who built this league. ... He came into the league as a player, he went into the union and he never left the game. I don't think he really had a feel for what was going on" with crippled or destitute retirees, DeLamielleure said.
Yet Upshaw expressed constant interest in players with troubled lives.
"With the two guys we had involved in different issues off the field, Odell Thurman and Chris Henry, Gene was always very concerned about them and what he could do personally to help them â€” to sit them down and confer with them and get them to understand why they were in the position they were in, and what could he do to help them. I found Gene to be just tremendous," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said.
Upshaw had repeatedly insisted he planned to see the labor situation through and gave no hint of being ill. Then the phone started ringing early Thursday morning and Condon got the news from Upshaw's wife, Terri.
"It's shocking," Condon said. "God only knows what Gene knew and when he knew it because he never told anyone anything. He was a heroic kind of character, outsized. You felt privileged to be his friend." Contributing: Jim Corbett in Cincinnati