No Country for Old Men

The NFL union chief doesn't always give retired players the respect they deserve
June 17, 2007

HISTORY HAS FAILEDto note how much of a sports fan Samuel Gompers was, but the AFL founder—theAmerican Federation of Labor, not the old football league—surely would havesmiled at the show of solidarity by the NHL, MLB and NBA proletariats lastweek. Hockey's union, still smarting from the face wash it received from ownersduring the 2004--05 lockout and leaderless thanks to the firing of executivedirector Ted Saskin last month, met with baseball union head Donald Fehr andformer NBA union chief Charles Grantham. The reason: The NHLPA was looking foradvice on how to pick a new chief.

Absent from theNHLPA's call list was Gene Upshaw, the Hall of Fame guard and longtimeexecutive director of the NFL Players Association. It's understandable ifUpshaw isn't the kind of consultant hockey players are looking for. LatelyUpshaw has been busy projecting the worst Hoffaesque stereotypes of organizedlabor bosses: There's been arrogance and insensitivity, even a threat of bodilyharm to a constituent who questioned his leadership. Instead of reveling inwhat should be a triumphant off-season—last year he negotiated the mostplayer-friendly labor agreement in league history, and this spring free agentscashed in as never before—Upshaw, after 24 years on the job, is facingquestions about his fitness to lead the union.

In a June 1interview with the Philadelphia Daily News, Upshaw addressed the manycomplaints directed at him over the past year by retirees who feel the unionhas turned its back on the players who helped build the NFL into a $6billion-a-year industry. One of Upshaw's harshest critics has been Hall of Fameguard Joe DeLamielleure, who retired in 1985. DeLamielleure has argued that theunion pension plan isn't generous enough and that Upshaw keeps current playersin the dark about how little help old-timers receive. Upshaw, saying he wasn't"one to turn the other cheek," lashed back: "A guy likeDeLamielleure says the things he said about me; you think I'm going to invitehim to dinner? No. I'm going to break his ... damn neck."

Later Upshaw saidthe remark wasn't to be taken literally, but DeLamielleure said his family wasfrightened—"He is the head of a union. He has the wherewithal to doit"—and that Upshaw should be fired. Upshaw's outburst was in startlinglypoor taste. It was also consistent with his public dealings with retirees. Lastyear he brushed off the old-timers by pointing out that they don't pay hissalary. "They don't hire me, and they don't fire me," he said."They can complain about me all day long."

It's ironic thatUpshaw, who has presided over a 20-year run of NFL labor peace, has often beencriticized for not being ferocious enough; for much of commissioner PaulTagliabue's reign, Upshaw parried charges that he was the commish's lapdog.It's ironic too that when he hasn't been trashing them to reporters, Upshaw hasbettered things for retirees. Last year pensions were increased by 25% forsalaries earned before 1982 and 10% for those earned later. (It was the NFLPA'sfourth pension increase since 1993.) Benefits were also added to cover medicalcosts for dementia.

All that isobscured by Upshaw's moments of belligerence. The feud has exposed how theunion boss straddles the NFL's generation gap. Older players who helped lay thegroundwork for the league's financial boom feel that they too should cash in.Upshaw, whose NFLPA salary is at least $2 million, may have played in 1977, butto his on-field contemporaries he sounds more like an NFL child of 2007—rich,self-satisfied, indifferent to those who built the game. He has helped themsomewhat, but Upshaw has his reasons for not giving retirees everything theywant. Since the labor agreement guarantees the union a percentage of leaguerevenues, every dollar in the pension plan is a dollar that can't be earned byUpshaw's bosses: today's players.

It's unlikely thatthose calling for Upshaw's ouster will be satisfied, but his attitude towardthe retirees may be weakening the support he has from current players. FormerPanthers player representative Mike Minter, while otherwise defending Upshaw,said the boss should apologize to DeLamielleure. And last week Cowboys Pro Bowlguard Marco Rivera told that many active players side with theretirees. "I've come across a lot of players who are unhappy with ourcurrent union situation," Rivera said. "I don't want to be looking backas an old-timer wondering why we didn't do anything about it."

A day later Dallascut the 35-year-old Rivera, who has had two back operations in two years andmay retire. In 2005 Rivera signed a five-year, $20 million deal with theCowboys, making him one of the many players to prosper wildly under Upshaw'swatch. That may have been the last favor Upshaw will do for him.

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