The death of former player and long-time NFL Players’ Association executive director Gene Upshaw from pancreatic cancer on Thursday morning leaves the NFLPA in both mourning and turmoil.
Upshaw was a bigger-than-life character on the pro football stage, first as a hall of fame player with the Oakland Raiders for 15 seasons, and then for over 20 years, the voice of the players against management in a series of labor disputes and agreements that shaped the modern NFL game as the league’s business model changed with the advent of new stadiums and enhanced revenue streams those brought to owners.
He got the players limited free agency in 1989 after the ’87 strike that forced owners to use replacement players. Full free agency and a salary cap changed the NFL landscape dramatically in 1993.
That salary cap is $116 million in 2008 and the players are pulling in almost 60 percent of the teams’ total revenue after the latest labor agreement in 2006. That large percentage share prompted the owners to opt out of the remaining years of the agreement earlier this year and Upshaw was ready to do battle once again.
Upshaw also took his share of criticism from those who thought he was too close with former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue in negotiations and retired players who felt the NFLPA didn’t do enough for those who built the game in the 1950s and 1960s, especially on the issue of disability benefits.
He was fighting a group of veteran players, led by the Ravens’ Matt Stover, about the future direction of the NFLPA, with another set of labor negotiations looming. Upshaw was determined to stay in power until the deal was done.
Now, the deal will be done by someone else. Only Marvin Miller and Donald Fehr, in baseball, have had more impact on owner-player relations in U.S. sports leagues than Upshaw, and while the players grieve the passing of their leader off the field, they must choose his successor carefully.
The next man up for the NFLPA will be in a tough spot against management in a fight about profit sharing, and if the deal isn’t done quickly enough, the potential elimination of the salary cap that evened the playing field between the small- and large-market clubs over the last 15 years. Both sides have much to gain, and lose, and it will take a leader on the players’ side who can fight for the NFLPA’s interests as adversaries in negotiations while understanding the big picture as partners with the owners in the best-run sports league in the world.