SI Vault
February 04, 2008
He succeeded in the trenches at Super Bowls and bargaining tables, but NFL union boss Gene Upshaw is under siege again—only this time he's butting heads with angry, hurting vets from his generation
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February 04, 2008

Bitter Battle For The Old Guard

He succeeded in the trenches at Super Bowls and bargaining tables, but NFL union boss Gene Upshaw is under siege again—only this time he's butting heads with angry, hurting vets from his generation

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THE POPE, his pals outside of football called him. Oh, they could've told the ghosts that they'd approached the Pope all wrong. Yes, he had access to wonderful things: to tickets and luxury boxes, Super Bowls and parties and nifty NFL paraphernalia. SWAG, his buddies Grasso and Norm Singer called it. S--- We Ain't Gettin'.

"SWAG is like the benefits issue," says Grasso. "You don't say to Gene, 'I deserve this' or 'I demand this.' That's the worst thing you can do. He decides when to give it out. You let the Pope take care of you. If these retired guys just did this behind closed doors, they'd get much more of what they want. All things flow from him. He'll come to you and tell you where you're going, and when you get there, he'll take care of you like a king. He loves to give. He's incredibly generous. But you don't question him. You don't challenge him. It's like he's got it all figured out in his mind."

That hermetic seal had its advantages. It consolidated Upshaw's power. The union virtually has to hire him as a consultant when he reaches the mandatory retirement age of 65 in 2010, just for the four-decade encyclopedia on NFL labor-management history in his head and his cabinets—a filing system bewildering to anyone but him. But the hermetic seal has drawbacks too.

Carl Francis. He was the NFLPA's entire public-relations department, one man gasping to meet media inquiries about all the union's contractual and players' rights issues even before the haunting began. Francis couldn't possibly satisfy the rash of reporters calling about the retirees, driving even more media into the ghosts' camp. But Upshaw wouldn't send reinforcements onto the public battlefield. Fools' names and faces are seen in public places.

Why should he have to convince people that he hadn't threatened DeLamielleure's life? Everyone who knew Upshaw knew that he wasn't a violent man and that his remark was a figurative expression of anger. Why should he have to prove that he cared about the suffering of his peers? He'd won the NFL's Byron "Whizzer" White Humanitarian Award in 1980 for helping so many charities, and he'd written scores of personal checks for players' coffins and funerals, widows and orphans.

He'd had so little leverage, his first decade as executive director, to increase pensions. He'd rallied his union to picket lines that kept melting because players' careers were too brief for them make a long-term stand, and owners held the billy club of antitrust exemption. He'd led the association out of its dark ages—when it was $4 million in debt and he couldn't even cash his own paychecks—by calling a flea-flicker after the failed '87 strike, decertifying the union in order to strip the league of its exemption, then winning an antitrust suit that brought expanded free agency in '93 and the fattest guaranteed slice of the gross of any union in sports.

Television, which loved the prolonged labor peace and stability that ensued, rewarded it with staggering revenue increases, from a $420 million deal in the early '80s to the current $4 billion-plus package. The average player's yearly salary during Upshaw's tenure as union chief soared from $120,000 a year to $1.4 million, and the post-'93 players suddenly had sweet benefits and a juicy 401(k) plan. Upshaw became the most important black sports executive and most significant African-American labor official in the U.S. He remained as old school as leather hightops, but his new sackful of goodies, the locker-room card games he'd fall right into when he visited teams and the rap tunes he could reference—his treadmill iPod music—kept him plenty now with the new crowd, and the players thundered their affirmation of his 2006 extension of the collective bargaining agreement, 1,795 votes to five. "That's my approval rating," says Upshaw.

BUT THAT '93 shift in dynamics contained a hidden virus. It turned the union and the NFL into partners, in effect. It turned commissioner Paul Tagliabue and Upshaw into regular dinner mates instead of the combatants that Gene and former commish Pete Rozelle had been. It cast Upshaw, in the eyes of the ghosts, into the role of the insider, the preserver of the status quo, rather than the outsider clawing for disenfranchised players' rights. It meant that any increase in the retirees' benefits would come out of the 60% that had already been shoved across the table, from the owners' side to the current players', which had the potential to set one generation against the other.

It took 13 years for the virus to metastasize and wallop Upshaw. Oh, it was sickening for a man who'd been seen as a militant in the '70s and '80s to be called a "pawn" by his peers, and the "personal pet" of the commissioner by HBO's Bryant Gumbel. Galling, to click on the TV and radio and discover that the ghosts had found a bullhorn, Iron Mike Ditka, the old Chicago Bears tight end and coach, calling Gene "a fraud." Galling, to look up and see even a 90-year-old leaping on the dogpile, the attorney who led baseball's union from 1966 to '83. "Every league's union except the NFL's has chosen to hire professional leadership," said Marvin Miller, who had hammered MLB's owners for the best pension plan in all of sports. "The NFL Players Association hired a former player. You see the results."

Galling, to get flogged for missing the first congressional hearing, when he'd received notice of it just six days before and was about to leave on a long-planned family vacation with his wife and the two sons from that second marriage. Galling, to hear his income flung about as evidence of his fat-cat detachment, when about half of that $6.7 million came from onetime bonuses and left him with a base salary about $1 million more than any other major sports union leader.

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