Vince Lombardi Jr., assistant executive director of the league's Management Council, became so perturbed by Upshaw's "macho posturing" that he invited him to duke it out. Lombardi thought Upshaw rose from the table to answer the challenge; Upshaw recalls only getting up to go to the bathroom. Whatever, fisticuffs were avoided, allowing Garvey, a man of generally concealed wit, to declare: "If Vince Jr. ever hits Gene and Gene finds out about it, Vince is going to be in real trouble."
Besides all those battles, Upshaw was also, as it were, cuckolded by his own union. The prime issue in '82 was the NFLPA's demand for 55% of each team's gross, to be handed over to the players and distributed on a simple longevity basis. A seven-year All-Pro celebrity quarterback would make just the same as, well, a seven-year unknown backup offensive guard. Predictably the offensive guards and their kind were all for the concept, while many of the stars were manifestly opposed to what critics called socialism.
Upshaw remained adamant and uncompromising. " Upshaw's power mad," said Lynn Swann, a highly paid star and a reasonable fellow. "He won't listen. You can't tell him anything. He wants to be heard but not to hear."
The percentage-of-the-gross arrangement, Upshaw kept bellowing, was not a negotiable item; it was, he said, "etched in stone." But on the other side of the table, the owners were so recalcitrant that Garvey dropped the percentage-of-the-gross demand even before the strike began—and Upshaw had egg etched on his face.
He hardened all the more. Jack Donlan, who had never known Upshaw in another context, found the union man to be "an enforcer" and at the time dismissed him as a "militant." But within a year, Donlan was happily surprised when a different Upshaw revealed himself to the NFL after being named executive director of the union. "I had to conclude," Donlan says, "that much of what I had seen before was Gene's role, not his personality."
Donlan, a management negotiator in the airline industry for many years before being hired by the NFL, says that it makes a great difference in the process of negotiation if the men across the table like—and trust—one another. Donlan and Upshaw have become genuinely good friends. When Donlan learned of Upshaw's salary ($150,000), he proposed that he negotiate for Upshaw the next time his contract comes up, inasmuch as the union boss is making much less than the poor working stiffs he represents. The two men have developed such an easy relationship that during recent negotiations in San Francisco, Donlan wickedly suggested that they might go down to the Tadich Grill for lunch. More substantively, in a move the peacemongering Upshaw initiated, they have, until recently, spoken together on the phone no less than twice a week for the last four years. Tellingly, though, as the negotiations have gotten grittier, Donlan has begun to complain publicly that Upshaw has stopped returning his calls.
While free agency remains the major issue, Upshaw, the old percentage-of-the-gross man, still harbors doubts about whether it will best benefit the players financially. "But the players want it," he says, "and I'll do what I must." In one major respect, Upshaw (and Garvey) have already had the last laugh, because the NFL teams are now paying 58% of their gross in player salaries. The average player's annual salary and benefits now exceed $250,000; they were less than $125,000 before the '82 strike—or, to be more correct, they were less than $125,000 before the United States Football League forced salaries to rise through free-enterprise competitive pressure.
"I've never once talked about making more money and I won't," Upshaw says stoutly. "That's not what this is all about. It's about dignity and choice. It's about America. So much of this has to do with control. The league has never agreed to the simple request to let the union put up bulletin boards in the locker rooms. We've even promised to pay for the bulletin boards. But they will not allow it. Control."
It is significant that during the '82 negotiations it was Upshaw's idea for the players to share a "solidarity" handshake before each game. This benign gesture, so consonant with Upshaw's natural civility, was, during this period, the single development in which he came off favorably. And that was the one time the league overreacted and made a fool of itself. What was the big deal? Basketball players shake hands before games. Boxers shake hands.
"But you see: control," Upshaw says. "They want to keep us separated, and unlike other sports, they've got a perfect system to start with. Even when we're on the same team, there's the offense and the defense. And there's the stars and the players no one knows."