Thursday, August 21, 2008

Gene Upshaw

Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players' Association, member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, died last night at age 63. Pancreatic cancer is about the nastiest of the ills human flesh must bear.

Upshaw's reputation as a player has been secure since he was a player. The pictures of him vaporizing fellow Hall of Famer Alan Page in Super Bowl XI should stick in the minds of any fan who cares for line play-you know, the worthy, discerning ones.

As union leader, Upshaw usually gets rated as a dud. Football players have less job security than any other team athletes, and most of their contracts are not guaranteed. The pension and health benefits for players of Upshaw's own time and before are shamefully inadequate, and he bears some of the responsibility for all those statements of fact.

But not all. In fact, not even most. People forget. A union is only as strong as its members. You can't lead people who won't follow, and in the immortal words of Marvin Miller, "football players are a bunch of management finks."

Upshaw's first test in office was the players' strike of 1987, which I had the misfortune of covering. His troops surrendered at first contact with the enemy. The strike, as a negotiating tool, was over practically before it began.

So we must judge Upshaw's subsequent tenure as NFLPA head knowing he had to bargain without the one real bargaining tool labor possesses. Given that considerable handicap, you can't give him a failing grade.

Football players have free agency, which they didn't in 1987. In real, adjusted for inflation terms, football players make way, way, way more than they did in 1987. The players have adjusted to the difference between their contracts' real money, as embodied in the signing bonus, and the make-believe figures on the back end.

The old players get the shaft, which is awful. But that, as Upshaw delicately pointed out, is the way his members want it. They are social Darwinians in a sport built on social Darwinism. A player of today looks at the old-timers, but he doesn't say, "wow, those guys deserve a lot for building the sport." No, he thinks, naturally if not commendably, "wow, that could happen to me. I better make sure all the money stays with us and not them."

Look at it this way. The current contract between the union and the league has been re-opened, with the possibility of enormous and costly chaos, by the owners, not by Upshaw. It's capital that's squealing it's getting the shaft from a deal, not labor.

When that happens, a union head has done about as well as he can.


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