All-Pro guard, Upshaw was craftier as union boss Print
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Thursday, 21 August 2008 13:52
NFL Headline News

 Gene Upshaw was common sense writ extra large.
Most men that big usually roll over people to get what they want. What made Upshaw an All-Pro guard in his playing days, and then the right man for the union job for the past quarter-century, is that he understood it was better sometimes to go around them.
Not because he was nimble - though Upshaw was that, and plenty more - but because he was smart.
More than a few of his contemporaries offered testimonials Thursday to Upshaw's toughness after hearing about his death from pancreatic cancer, even while still seething over his repeated failure to get them anything close to the medical coverage and pension benefits that current players enjoy. And more than a few current players struggled to put their differences aside, even for a moment, before praising Upshaw's long service - if not always the results.
Not to be outdone, management types from commissioner Roger Goodell on down joined the chorus. Yet they, too, had plenty of unfinished business with Upshaw, most notably the last labor deal he cut with former commissioner Paul Tagliabue. Enough owners were upset by the players' share of NFL revenues in 2010 - a 60 percent piece of what is projected to be a $10 billion pie - that they voted to opt out of the deal and risk a confrontation with the players. Some lap dog Upshaw turned out to be.
So the most fitting tribute to the man isn't just free agency, or the phenomenal growth of the league, or even the players' share of the take. It's that he accomplished all those things while making people on both sides of the labor divide unhappy to his dying day. Because that's what makes compromise possible.
Matt Millen wound up bumping heads with Upshaw in practice nearly 30 years ago as a rookie linebacker with the Oakland Raiders, but only indirectly in recent years as president of the Detroit Lions' and a member of the NFL's management-union council. What impressed him was how much of what Upshaw accomplished as a player still informed how he conducted himself as a boss.
``We called him the governor when he was a player. That's what he was. He was one of those guys who conducted himself that way. ... He was physically gifted and talented, but mentally he was a notch above because Gene would always use you against you,'' Millen said.
``That was the same way he operated as an executive. I've always said this, we used to joke all the time about how Gene was 'dumb like a fox.' You could say whatever you wanted to say and in the end, it ended up going his way. And you'd go, 'How did he do that?'''
Plenty of his union members looked only at the concessions Upshaw made through the years and found themselves asking ``Why did he do that?'' instead. The short answer is that Upshaw decided early on that becoming a partner in growing the game was a better long-term strategy than fighting over every dollar in fits and starts.
So he gave in on a salary cap after the 1987 strike and more recently, gave up trying to secure guaranteed contracts, because he knew that unlike baseball and basketball, the sheer number of bodies needed to fill out a 53-man roster made the economics daunting. And he gave a few percentage points of the players' revenues back to help new stadiums.
But Upshaw got unrestricted free agency in return, and the crazy dollars that flowed to the players as a result. If he left his successor plenty of weighty issues still to resolve, there's no arguing that he also left the union much stronger and a whole lot richer than he found it. What might be hardest to replace is Upshaw's style. He could be low-key to a fault.
ll Walsh and Bill Parcells confirmed it.
Back at the hotel, a few of the teams' players representatives were crowing to scattered TV news crews about how lousy the product looked. At one point, reporters rushed outside as a limo pulled up, expecting to see Upshaw climb out. Instead, a few striking Chicago Bears' players emerged, one loudly predicting into a cell phone - the size of a boom-box back then - that ownership would crack any day now.
Upshaw knew better.
He knew how much hard, humbling work was ahead trying to hold the union together and keeping the management hawks from feasting on the pieces. And he was right. The players' solidarity cracked a few weeks later, with the defection of Lawrence Taylor and then a few Dallas Cowboys, and Upshaw eventually took a big hit for accepting a contract with a salary cap.
What we should have known was that he was already at work on a plan to hit back.
In the next half-dozen years, the union would file antitrust legislation and then, in a shifty, but very effective legal maneuver, decertify itself. When a court finally awarded the players free agency, Upshaw re-certified the union and was strong enough to sit down with Tagliabue as the bargaining partner he'd always planned to be.
Like Millen, few of us ever figured out how Upshaw usually got his way. But he left behind a few clues. On the night of that union meeting in 1987, while that pack of reporters rushed out to the front entrance every time a limo pulled up, Upshaw waited until the commotion died down, then slipped in the back entrance at 9 p.m. and quietly went right to work.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at

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