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Former NFL star rips Gumbel (cont.)

Posted: Tuesday August 22, 2006 2:38PM; Updated: Tuesday August 22, 2006 9:34PM
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Gene Upshaw has been criticized for being too close to NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue.
Gene Upshaw has been criticized for being too close to NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue.

Gumbel's criticism came five months after Upshaw turned in what some consider the finest work of his union-leadership tenure: this spring's cliff-hanger of a six-year extension of the league's collective bargaining agreement, which added nearly $1 billion to the amount league owners contribute to players and was widely critiqued as a union victory.

Upshaw is on vacation, but NFLPA general counsel Richard Berthelsen took exception with Gumbel's comments on Tuesday, telling SI.com, "His statements were obviously made with total ignorance of the facts. Because anyone looking at our recent CBA extension would come to the conclusion that Gene has done a masterful job getting the most he could get for his constituents at the bargaining table. It's measurable. The deal provides for 60 percent of all revenue going to the players. That's the most of the four major sports.''

Gumbel is not the only off-base critic of Upshaw, said Smith, who in the fall serves as a college football analyst for ESPN. He also took exception with the recent anti-Upshaw stances expressed by ESPN's Stephen A. Smith on his show Quite Frankly.

"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.''

As a rookie with Minnesota in 1993, Smith said he and teammate Gino Torretta, a reserve quarterback, in one meeting "laid into'' Upshaw over the then-new rookie salary cap and other issues affecting younger players. But in time he came to see that Upshaw had the interests of all players at heart, not just a particular slice of the union membership.

"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.''

Even a year ago, the portrayal of Upshaw as having a far too cozy relationship with both Tagliabue and the NFL's management was a fairly widespread perception. But this year Upshaw, while forging a deal that's not likely to last beyond early 2009, put to rest much of the talk that he was in Tagliabue's pocket.

"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.

"And a Bryant Gumbel, when he puts himself out there like that, to admit you're wrong, it's the worst of all fates for people like that. They're not going to do it, because they need to feel power, and to feel like they're still heard. I really wonder how much of this is a racial thing, and about somebody losing some power.''