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 tipping point had come. He'd never admit he was hurt, but his colleagues, who loved him, watched in sorrow as he closed the door and holed up in his office. If the ghosts were going to reach as high as Congress and as low as his ex-wife's autopsy to annihilate him, Upshaw decided, then he too would have to do the unthinkable.

He asked for help. He called ghost-busters.

THAT WAS them—the team from Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe—that I noticed huddling with Upshaw on the sidelines. They were experts at crisis management in trials, on Capitol Hill and in the court of public opinion.

They began working the aisles of Congress last summer, issuing white papers, contacting media, convincing Upshaw to explain his side. Many of the ghosts' pensions were so pitiful—as scant as the $126.85 a month of former Green Bay Packers cornerback Herb Adderley—because they'd taken a lump-sum payout early, wiping out 25% of their nest eggs, and begun drawing their pensions at age 45 instead of waiting until 62, then seen the sums cut in half each time they divorced. Once a retiree elected to start receiving his pension, as in virtually every other benefits plan, he couldn't qualify for disability no matter how dramatic his decline.

But how, the ghosts cried, could you compare a gladiator's benefits plan with that of a factory worker's or clerk's? Football was unique; the plan had to reflect that!

Yes, the ghosts had all returned to the field, now with an even fiercer vengeance. Why, that disability program was a Chutes and Ladders board, they screamed, designed to make them vanish through trapdoors. It was nearly impossible to get approved for total permanent disability, sneered Dobler; hell, Stephen Hawking himself, blowing through a tube to operate his laptop, would be deemed fit to work by the NFL's and union's mutually approved doctors. Anyone who'd played knew that football injuries often didn't manifest their severity until a man was years removed from the game—oops, sorry, Mr. Dobler, even though you've had five knee replacements and 13 leg operations and spent months in a Vicodin haze, you applied after that pesky 36-month window for a line-of-duty injury claim had expired.

A mere return telephone call, when you've left a message at the union looking for help in navigating the board? Forget it, the ghosts claimed. About as much chance as proving that your disability stemmed solely from that horse-collar tackle in '72, and not from something else.

So screw the Chutes and Ladders board, growled Dobler, who also cares for his quadriplegic wife. Just give us a decent pension like the major leaguers have and we'll pay for our own medical and assisted-living costs. Even if a retired pre-'93 player didn't tap his pension early, as Dobler—due to draw $48,000 a year beginning at 62—hasn't, NFL pensions paled next to baseball's; they were roughly one third.

Well, of course they paled, countered Upshaw. Where were these groaners in the '70s and '80s, back when the strikes he called kept caving in, back when baseball's union held firm and larded its pension pantry? Why, he said, it would cost $1 billion to bring the NFL's pension plan up to par with MLB's now! And here came Tagliabue out of retirement, chiming in his support. "The players' rallying cry back then was, 'We want our money now,'" said the former commissioner. "Gene's spent his life trying to convince players saying, 'Give me the money now,' to put that money into pensions."

Damn right they'd wanted it now, shrieked the ghosts. They were mayflies, their careers lasting an average of three years, here and gone before they could even grasp the issues, many believing the rumors circulating that the average NFL player's life span was 54 years—dead men don't draw pensions! No wonder 325 pre-'93 retirees had tapped theirs early!

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