HISTORY HAS FAILED
to note how much of a sports fan Samuel Gompers was, but the AFL founder—the
American Federation of Labor, not the old football league—surely would have
smiled at the show of solidarity by the NHL, MLB and NBA proletariats last
week. Hockey's union, still smarting from the face wash it received from owners
during the 2004--05 lockout and leaderless thanks to the firing of executive
director Ted Saskin last month, met with baseball union head Donald Fehr and
former NBA union chief Charles Grantham. The reason: The NHLPA was looking for
advice on how to pick a new chief.
Absent from the
NHLPA's call list was Gene Upshaw, the Hall of Fame guard and longtime
executive director of the NFL Players Association. It's understandable if
Upshaw isn't the kind of consultant hockey players are looking for. Lately
Upshaw has been busy projecting the worst Hoffaesque stereotypes of organized
labor bosses: There's been arrogance and insensitivity, even a threat of bodily
harm to a constituent who questioned his leadership. Instead of reveling in
what should be a triumphant off-season—last year he negotiated the most
player-friendly labor agreement in league history, and this spring free agents
cashed in as never before—Upshaw, after 24 years on the job, is facing
questions about his fitness to lead the union.
In a June 1
interview with the Philadelphia Daily News, Upshaw addressed the many
complaints directed at him over the past year by retirees who feel the union
has turned its back on the players who helped build the NFL into a $6
billion-a-year industry. One of Upshaw's harshest critics has been Hall of Fame
guard Joe DeLamielleure, who retired in 1985. DeLamielleure has argued that the
union pension plan isn't generous enough and that Upshaw keeps current players
in the dark about how little help old-timers receive. Upshaw, saying he wasn't
"one to turn the other cheek," lashed back: "A guy like
DeLamielleure says the things he said about me; you think I'm going to invite
him to dinner? No. I'm going to break his ... damn neck."
Later Upshaw said
the remark wasn't to be taken literally, but DeLamielleure said his family was
frightened—"He is the head of a union. He has the wherewithal to do
it"—and that Upshaw should be fired. Upshaw's outburst was in startlingly
poor taste. It was also consistent with his public dealings with retirees. Last
year he brushed off the old-timers by pointing out that they don't pay his
salary. "They don't hire me, and they don't fire me," he said.
"They can complain about me all day long."
It's ironic that
Upshaw, who has presided over a 20-year run of NFL labor peace, has often been
criticized for not being ferocious enough; for much of commissioner Paul
Tagliabue's reign, Upshaw parried charges that he was the commish's lapdog.
It's ironic too that when he hasn't been trashing them to reporters, Upshaw has
bettered things for retirees. Last year pensions were increased by 25% for
salaries earned before 1982 and 10% for those earned later. (It was the NFLPA's
fourth pension increase since 1993.) Benefits were also added to cover medical
costs for dementia.
All that is
obscured by Upshaw's moments of belligerence. The feud has exposed how the
union boss straddles the NFL's generation gap. Older players who helped lay the
groundwork for the league's financial boom feel that they too should cash in.
Upshaw, whose NFLPA salary is at least $2 million, may have played in 1977, but
to his on-field contemporaries he sounds more like an NFL child of 2007—rich,
self-satisfied, indifferent to those who built the game. He has helped them
somewhat, but Upshaw has his reasons for not giving retirees everything they
want. Since the labor agreement guarantees the union a percentage of league
revenues, every dollar in the pension plan is a dollar that can't be earned by
Upshaw's bosses: today's players.
It's unlikely that
those calling for Upshaw's ouster will be satisfied, but his attitude toward
the retirees may be weakening the support he has from current players. Former
Panthers player representative Mike Minter, while otherwise defending Upshaw,
said the boss should apologize to DeLamielleure. And last week Cowboys Pro Bowl
guard Marco Rivera told ESPN.com that many active players side with the
retirees. "I've come across a lot of players who are unhappy with our
current union situation," Rivera said. "I don't want to be looking back
as an old-timer wondering why we didn't do anything about it."
A day later Dallas
cut the 35-year-old Rivera, who has had two back operations in two years and
may retire. In 2005 Rivera signed a five-year, $20 million deal with the
Cowboys, making him one of the many players to prosper wildly under Upshaw's
watch. That may have been the last favor Upshaw will do for him.
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