Upshaw's leadership called 'irreplaceable'

The NFLPA going forward

August 22, 2008|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN REPORTER

The NFL Players Association is about to find out what it's like to go into high-stakes negotiations without Gene Upshaw.

Upshaw carried the union fight for 25 years as its strong-willed executive director, participating in collective bargaining negotiations as far back as 1977.

His death, from pancreatic cancer Wednesday, went shock waves through the NFL and left a leadership void in the union.

"The new guy will have to do what he can, but he can't be Gene Upshaw," said Stan White, a former Baltimore Colt and long-time union activist. "Gene's irreplaceable."

During Upshaw's stewardship, the league experienced a dramatic change in player salaries and benefits. He stared down rich owners, squelched budding mutinies and ushered in the age of free agency.

Upshaw also won the respect of the people he bargained against.

"He played a colossal role in the success the NFL enjoys today, even more than many people realize," New York Jets owner Robert Wood Johnson IV said.

Occasionally chastised for being too cozy with Paul Tagliabue, Upshaw nevertheless won unbridled free agency from the former commissioner in 1993 and scored another major victory in the 2006 CBA negotiations. The victory was so thorough that owners decided last May to terminate the agreement in 2011, two years early.

Pending successful negotiations on a new deal, the owners are risking a season of uncapped salaries in 2010.

Upshaw promised they would not go back to a salary cap if the players reached an uncapped season. In recent months, he withstood challenges both inside and outside the union.

Now, the union is forced to proceed without him.

The union's executive committee unanimously appointed general counsel Richard Berthelsen as acting executive director. He has worked with the union for the past 37 years.

Ravens kicker and player representative Matt Stover, who spent four of his 16 previous NFL seasons on the executive committee under Upshaw, said he wasn't interested in the post. He identified potential candidates as former union presidents Mike Kenn, Trace Armstrong and Troy Vincent, and current president Kevin Mawae.

Last April, Stover e-mailed player reps suggesting they prepare for a "change in leadership." He has declined to address the reasons behind the e-mail, and yesterday emphasized the players needing time to grieve.

"Now is the time to talk about the loss and his legacy," Stover said. "Considering where we were when I started in 1990, it's been an astronomical change. Teams probably had a payroll of $50 million then; now it's $110 million. The state of the league is very healthy. His legacy is tremendous."

Upshaw led a 57-day strike in 1982 and a 24-day strike in 1987. His decision to decertify the union in 1989 set up a 1990 Justice Department ruling that ultimately established free agency.

In recent years, retired players attacked Upshaw for not increasing their benefits enough, even though he did provide for incremental improvements.

White became close with Upshaw during the 1982 strike.

"A lot of [negotiations] took place here in Cockeysville," White said. "He would come to the house and we'd go to church together."

.

Diagnosed with cancer only on Sunday, Upshaw kept his illness a secret. White was among those who found out after the fact.

"Gene was one of the best human beings I've ever known," he said. "He was a strong, strong man with a big, big heart."

ken.murray@baltsun.com

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