Gene Upshaw – a Giant among men
"We are deeply saddened and shocked by the sudden and unexpected death of our leader, Gene Upshaw," the players' union said on its Web site.
"Our thoughts and prayers go out to his wife, Terri, and their three sons -- Eugene, Justin and Daniel. Gene learned he was sick just this past Sunday and he died with his family at his side."
Upshaw died Wednesday night at his home in Lake Tahoe, California, the union said, according to The Associated Press.
Upshaw had been involved with the union as a player before taking on the role of executive director 25 years ago.
He participated in negotiations of the 1977, 1982 and 1993 collective bargaining agreements between the players association and the league and was involved in extensions of the agreement in 1998, 2002 and 2006, the NFL said.
Hosting HBO’s Real Sports in August 2006 Bryant Gumbel on the eve of Paul Tagliabue’s retirement as NFL commissioner suggested he believed Upshaw had served at the pleasure of Tagliabue for the 17 years the two men have worked together.
"Before he cleans out his office, have Paul Tagliabue show you where he keeps Gene Upshaw's leash. By making the docile head of the players union his personal pet, your predecessor has kept the peace without giving players the kind of guarantees other pros take for granted. Try to make sure no one competent ever replaces Upshaw on your watch."
As offensive as Gumbel’s remarks were then as they are now, it’s well worth considering what Gene Upshaw accomplished as head of the NFLPA. Has Gene Upshaw stood and delivered for the membership he’s represented?
"When you look at the issues and the recent round of CBA negotiations and what actually happened, ask the owners if they have Gene on a leash or if they control Gene. Ask them if they're happy with the CBA agreement and Gene's subservience.
"How many owners have come out and said they got the worse end of the deal? When you know the truth about something and you hear the opposite enough times, it really grates on you. That's where I'm at.''
Smith who retired in 2001 has remained an active member of the NFLPA severing voluntarily on the NFLPA's card committee, which regulates and disciplines agents.
"The consensus is that Gene had his finest hour in the last CBA negotiations,'' Robert Smith said, "But when you have loudmouths like Stephen A. Smith and Gumbel going off like they have -- and Smith has said, 'Gene Upshaw should be fired, and he's a crook' -- that perception stays out there and starts to leak into players' minds. And it can be damaging. I know, because I was a player once and I was against Gene and felt like he wasn't doing the job. But I was converted. Those are your most powerful allies, the ones who used to be against you and have been brought around to see a different viewpoint.''
While Smith clearly is in Gene Upshaw’s corner today, that wasn’t the case when he began taking an active role in the NFLPA as Smith told SI.com’s Don Banks.
"I became the Vikings player rep in part to get rid of Gene,'' Smith said.”Jack Del Rio got involved with the union for the same reason. But once I was informed, I came to realize the job he was doing for the entire union.
"Everybody wants to focus on the NFL not having guaranteed contracts. But the truth is, if contracts were guaranteed, owners would make them a lot shorter and the dollars would go down. People mistakenly think the structure of current deals would carry over to those deals, but there's no way they would.''
Smith doesn’t have any issue with Paul Tagliabue and Gene Upshaw having the ability to work together.
"It bothers me that that perception is still out there, even if it's a small number of people,'' Smith said.”Even when [Vikings center] Matt Birk comes out and says what he said [criticizing Upshaw before a CBA deal was struck in March], those are dangerous voices because they're recognized as being intelligent voices. But they're still uninformed regarding the issues.
As a football player, Upshaw has earned the ultimate honor, enshrinement into the Football Hall of Fame. Upshaw was also selected as a member of the NFL’s 75th Anniversary team and a member of the 1970’s all-decade team. He was a man among men on the football field.
Upshaw was in charge of the NFLPA in 1987, when the union went on strike early in the regular season. The owners’ reactions – the replacements. The strike was a disaster for the NFLPA. The networks televised the games, treating the games as they did before the as if these hastily assembled teams were the same quality as the veterans who were out on strike. Faced with cracks in its members' support and the willingness of the networks to broadcast the games, the union voted to go back to work on October 15, 1987. It filed a new antitrust suit that same day.
The Court of Appeals ultimately rejected that suit on the ground that the labor exemption from antitrust liability protected the employers, even though the union was no longer party to a collective bargaining agreement that would have permitted the practices that the union was challenging. In response, the union formally disclaimed any interest in representing NFL players in collective bargaining and reformed itself as a professional organization in 1989. Having done that, the following year union members, led by Freeman McNeil of the New York Jets, brought a new antitrust action against the NFL challenging its free agency rules as an unlawful restraint of trade.
The players ultimately prevailed, after a jury trial on their claims, in that action. That verdict, the pendency of other antitrust cases and the threat of a class action filed by Reggie White, then with the Philadelphia Eagles, on behalf of all NFL players brought the parties back to the negotiating table. They finally agreed on a formula that permitted free agency in return for salary caps tied to a formula based on players' share of total league revenues.
Since 1987 the National Football League and its players have enjoyed immense growth on every level. As a business the NFL has become an economic engine. All one has to consider is when the rights fees the NFL earns from his broadcast partners are added up ($3.7 billion annually); the total exceeds that of all the other sports combined.
The NFLPA was near bankruptcy when Upshaw took control 23 years ago. The NFLPA now has $163 million in the bank. NFL players are now guaranteed 59.5 percent of league revenues, the highest of any of the four major North American sports leagues. More importantly the recently negotiated collective bargaining agreement dramatically improved the pension benefits not only current NFL players will enjoy but their long retired brothers in arms.
Upshaw hasn’t (nor should he) dignify Gumbel’s remarks. However, two years ago in an interview with The Philadelphia Daily News’ Paul Domowitch, Upshaw discussed his relationship with Paul Tagliabue.
"Paul and I have had discussions about how people perceive us," Upshaw says. "We have a relationship where we can just sit down and talk without even talking about business. We can talk about the history (of the game). About what he's been through, what I've been through. All of those things are why we've had success . . .
"Probably the most important thing Paul has done is kept us out of the courtroom. He knew and I knew that if we stayed out of the courtroom and used the assets, which is the players, we could grow the game in a way that is unbelievable. And that's what's happened."
Hall of Fame Oakland Raiders coach John Madden, a tremendous judge of character began and ended with Upshaw on the Raiders roster, knew Upshaw was destined for greatness.
"You just knew Gene Upshaw was eventually going to go on to something great," Madden told ESPN from his Bay Area office. "We'd take trips to our capital at Sacramento and I'd watch him moving among those politicians and just marvel. Sometimes, sort of half-kidding, half-serious, I used to call him 'Governor,' because that's what I always guessed he'd be."
Consider how Upshaw’s contemporaries have done while they’ve been entrusted sports other major sports leagues. Billy Hunter and the National Basketball Association Players Association where forced to accept maximum salaries from the NBA in January 1999. Under Bob Goodenow’s ‘leadership’ the National Hockey League lost an entire season. By the time the National Hockey League Players Association came back to the NHL hat in hand in July 2005, management won every issue they wanted save for a few.
The Major League Baseball Players Association with all due respect remains a Tour de Force. The MLBPA has never lost any CBA negotiation with MLB owners. The difference between the successes the MLBPA have enjoyed has everything to do with the lack of resolve baseball owners have, then the effectiveness first Marvin Miller and then Donald Fehr and the MLBPA. NHL owners proved if the resolve of ownership is strong enough, owners ultimately will force the players to accept a salary cap and similar conditions that exist in the other major sports. In simplistic terms, MLB owners don’t have the intestinal fortitude to go toe-to-toe with the MLBPA. Until the owners become united as one, the MLBPA will always be able to control the owners.
Upshaw experienced first hand in 1987 how single minded NFL owners could be. Gene Upshaw learnt a hard lesson; he realized he could better serve his membership by working inside the system, with the NFL as partners, as opposed to the adversarial relationship that was standard operating procedures in the other sports.
"When Paul took over, one of the first things he did was call me and said, `Let's get together for dinner.' We met at a little (Washington D.C.) restaurant up on Columbia Road. From that point on, that's been the difference.
"We have agreed on a lot of things and we have disagreed on a lot of things. But it's nobody else's business. It doesn't advance his cause or my cause to have the Washington Post or the New York Times or the Philadelphia Daily News making a headline out of it, when the real issue is how do we solve the problem, rather than become the problem.
"It's never been about either one of us trying to one-up the other. It's always been what we can do to make our product better and to grow it. If people don't understand that it’s their problem, not ours."
Upshaw made it clear to The New York Times Damon Hack several years ago he believes he and Tagliabue serve as ‘guardians of the game’.
"The beauty of the relationship is that we have a common interest in getting it out of the game, whether it's Balco, steroids, whatever," Upshaw said of his work with Tagliabue.
"We understand how delicate it is for our product to be in a situation where the fans don't show up because they have no confidence in the game. When you look at the drug policy, our players don't want it in the game. When the baseball players don't want it in the game, it will get out. That's what happened with us. This is the only area in which the football players basically gave the owners the right for random testing because they wanted it out of the game."
Harold Henderson (an African-American), chairman of the NFL Management Council, and the league's executive vice president of labor relations since 1991, believes Upshaw stood and delivered in the latest round of negotiations with the league.
"He knows how to set his sights on his goal and pursue it -- relentlessly," Henderson said earlier this month. "He wanted a bigger piece of the pie for the players. Some of us took the position that revenue sharing might be good for league but it's none of your business. You know, 'You just go ahead and make a labor deal.'
"I think some people thought he was arguing but not really committed to the principle. Suddenly, it started to dawn on people that the guy really means it. Over time, he spoke with more and more owners.
"In the end, they were believers."
Consider this when you’re trying to evaluate what Gene Upshaw has accomplished. In 1994 the first year the NFL instituted a salary cap; teams had a spending limit of $34.6 million. A dozen years later, the NFL salary cap for the 2006 season stands at $102 million and teams have a salary floor (minimum team payroll) of $75 million. In 1994 the average NFL salary was $627,000. Ten years later the average NFL salary doubled to $1.26 million in 2004. Is there a union leader anywhere who can claim under his watch the average salary has increased by 100 percent in ten years?
Historically since Marvin Miller left the Steelworkers of America to become the first full time executive director for the MLBPA the relationship between owners and players in the sports industry has been regressive, not progressive.
How far as the NFLPA advanced as a union, in establishing a working partnership with management? Consider these comments Upshaw shared with ESPN days after the NFLPA and the NFL agreed on labor peace at least through the 2009 VFL season.
"We have another 10 stadiums we still need to build," says Upshaw, whose union is the only one in professional sports that has invested money in the construction of new venues. "Until we can get that done, those teams aren't going to grow. Minnesota, Oakland, San Francisco, San Diego . . . that group at the bottom (of the revenue scale) are all in old stadiums. I've been around long enough to remember when they opened all those stadiums, and we thought they were great. Now, they're a piece of crap and need to be replaced."
The football industry mourned today as one in paying their respects to a true titan of industry.
"The Raider organization, the National Football League, and the world have lost a great man. Gene Upshaw's career successes as a professional football player and a union leader are unparalleled. He is as prominent a sportsman as the world has known. He was and will remain a part of the fabric of our lives and of the Raider mystique and legacy. We loved him and he loved us. We will miss him. Our hearts go out to Terri and the boys." — Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis.
"Gene Upshaw did everything with great dignity, pride, and conviction. He was the rare individual who earned his place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame both for his accomplishments on the field and for his leadership of the players off the field." — NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
"It is a sad day for the NFL, but Gene's positive impact and legacy will live on for decades to come." — Goodell.
"Gene was a true pioneer as one of the few African American leaders of a major union. He was the equal of owners in negotiations and made the league a better place for all players. Playing alongside of Gene was an honor and a privilege. He was a pillar of strength and leadership for our great Raider teams." — Former Oakland Raiders player and coach Art Shell, and his wife Janice.
"Gene Upshaw was a good friend, an inspiring leader and a tireless and effective champion of players in the NFL. I can't imagine a world without Gene's larger than life presence." — former NFLPA assistant executive director Doug Allen.
"Few people in the history of the National Football League have played the game as well as Gene and then had another career in football with so much positive impact on the structure and competitiveness of the entire league as Gene. In both careers, if you hit him in the head, he could hit you back twice as hard — but he didn't always do so. He was very tough but also a good listener. He never lost sight of the interests of the game and the big picture." — former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue.
"It's not polite to speak ill of the dead and I hope his soul is at peace in heaven. But he was a mean-spirited man, who disregarded the plight of many of his former colleagues, who sought improved pension and medical benefits. However, he did a lot for the current players. They owe their salaries to Gene Upshaw." — attorney James Acho, who represented several former NFL players in grievances against the NFLPA, seeking improved pension and medical benefits.
"People can say what they want to say about Gene. They didn't like him. He was too brash. He didn't stroke them the right way. But Gene always told you the truth. Gene got the job done when it boils down to it. His legacy will go on forever." — NFLPA president and Tennessee Titans center Kevin Mawae.
"If you look at the history of the NFL you're going to find out that he was one of the most influential people that the league has known. He did so much, not only for the players, but also for the owners, the teams, and the game of pro football. In that, he is obviously going to be missed. He was respected by everyone, because as a player he was a tough guy, and as the union head he was a tough guy. But he was also smart, and he could compromise, and he could make things happen." — NBC broadcaster and Upshaw's coach with the Raiders John Madden.
"He always treated people with respect and dignity. He always was able to keep things in perspective, and maintained a positive attitude. While he was a strong advocate for the players, at the end of the day, he really wanted to do what was right for the game." — Green Bay Packers president and former NFLPA assistant executive director Mark Murphy.
"His union leadership has been one of the key factors to the exponential growth that the league and all of its players have enjoyed over the past two decades. Gene represented the players the way I would want to be represented: with understanding, integrity and a steadfast commitment to doing what was right for them and what was best for the game." — New England Patriots chairman Robert Kraft.
"After his long career as a player, he dedicated his efforts to tirelessly working to improve the salaries, benefits and working conditions of generations of NFL players. We talked often about common issues, and I will miss those conversations." — Major League Baseball players' union head Donald Fehr.
"I think he was a good guy. ... You don't always have to agree with everything somebody does to respect them." — Former NFL player and coach Mike Ditka, on ESPN Radio.
"I think any player who touched our game the last 20 years has been positively influenced by his leadership. Whether it be raising the minimums for rookies, whether it be for veterans, whether it be for retired players, you name it, you continue to look back over the last 20 years and he's done nothing but improve the game for players. Everybody can sit back, and obviously, some people might criticize some of the things he's done, but overall, I don't think you could have asked for a better leader." — Colts center and player rep Jeff Saturday.
"You won't find a better person in terms of taking care of former players than Gene Upshaw. Gene would do whatever is best for the players. You hear all the older players who gripe and complain that we should have better this or better that, they wouldn't have what they have today if not for Gene Upshaw." — Former teammate and fellow Hall of Famer Willie Brown.
"It really took my breath away when I saw the message come across my desk. I just stopped and immediately thought about all the times that we played against each other. We didn't like each other when we played against each other. But he was a tremendous athlete, a tremendous leader, not only an inspiration for the Raiders — did I mention that we didn't like the Raiders? — and then just his leadership in the NFLPA." — Redskins coach Jim Zorn.
Gene Upshaw a true giant among men.
For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom