Resentment within the NFL Players Association for being blamed as an "impediment" in the franchise expansion process brought an explosive reaction from Gene Upshaw, the Hall of Famer who leads the organization.
In an interview yesterday with The Evening Sun, he said, "It's a bum rap and the public isn't buying into it," referring to the league's stance that the lack of a collective bargaining agreement is delaying it from accepting two new teams.
He also spoke out against a would-be St. Louis expansion owner offering to purchase the financially troubled New England Patriots, calling it a "deal within a deal," and accused Charlotte, N.C., of possibly gaining an unfair advantage.
"The NFL expanded before, in 1976, taking in Seattle and Tampa Bay without the players and owners having a contract," Upshaw pointed out. "Nothing has changed. It's ridiculous to charge us with delaying the action. The public is finding out all it needs to know about the owners. There's no reason for the public to trust the owners because the owners haven't given them any reason to trust them."
Frank Woschitz, an assistant to Upshaw, raised the issue of roster positions. "Look, two more teams means over 100 jobs for the players," he said. "Why would we want to deny more players a chance to play professional football? That makes no sense at all."
Back to Upshaw, who fired another salvo: "The owners say they are going to go ahead and continue the college draft, even though its legality has been constantly under fire. But, with expansion, they delay. They say they can't be sure. Isn't such a stand contradictory?"
Upshaw said while attending the Super Bowl he hoped the NFL would favor putting teams in the two cities that were abandoned, Oakland, where he played with distinction for 15 seasons, and Baltimore. Woschitz said he agrees, personally emphasizing Baltimore -- where he had been a season ticket holder of the Colts. Upshaw was asked what he thought when he heard a potential owner, James Busch Orthwein, of the St. Louis expansion team, offered to bail out the league by buying the Patriots.
"That's what I mean about a 'deal within a deal,' " said Upshaw. that happens I feel badly for Baltimore and Oakland. Then you know St. Louis has done this to assure itself of a team in exchange for the favor.
"About six months ago, a bank in Charlotte, N.C., advanced the league a $980 million line-of-credit. Lamar Hunt, owner of the Kansas City Chiefs, said this wouldn't influence the league to award the Carolinas an expansion team. Do you believe that?
"The league is in disarray. It comes down to the voting procedure. You need 21 votes of 28 to get a decision from the owners. That was one of the reasons Al Davis [owner of the Raiders, in both Oakland and Los Angeles] won his court decision. It should be a majority vote to carry a question. But they have made no effort to change the voting rule. A majority vote is the way it is in other sports, like basketball and baseball."
Upshaw and Woschitz are awaiting the mid-June trial, when the courts hear the players' demands for free agency. Since March 11 of last year, Woschitz cited the results of 11 court cases, where a player or the association had a legal disagreement with league ownership. And the score: Players 11, Owners 0.
So why hasn't the league expanded? "That's easy," said Upshaw. "If it enlarges, it means instead of cutting the financial pie 28 ways it becomes 30 or 32 slices. Anything that hurts them they blame on us. But public sentiment is not on the side of the owners. The public isn't stupid. The owners are in football for profit and greed. You only have to look at some of the owners they have."
Upshaw went on to say the arrogance of the owners is reflected in what happened to instant replay. Told by this reporter that TV replays were artificial and didn't belong in football, Upshaw said, "That's not the point. You can disagree if you want. Public polls show the fans wanted it and expected the technology to improve. The owners want to shorten the games so one game doesn't bump into another on TV.
"What I'm saying is the owners' disregard for the public in this instance typifies how they are treating the expansion cities, unless you are able to make a 'deal within a deal.' You saw what the NFL did to San Antonio. The people there got a quick rejection after doing everything asked of them."
It would seem to a sideline observer that Upshaw has a closer relationship with commissioner Paul Tagliabue than he did with Pete Rozelle, his predecessor. "Not especially," he said. "It's about the same. I know Paul better because he was involved in so many of the cases when he was a counsel to the league."
Upshaw wants it made clear from the position of the players association that in no way is it standing in the way of expansion. The sooner new clubs are named the better it is from his perspective. More teams equate to additional jobs on the field. That's one of the foremost reasons he eagerly awaits the expansion objective being fulfilled.