Much as I have cracked upon Gene Upshaw for not fighting harder for better guaranteed money from the NFL and for seeming callous towards the old-school players and their medical concerns, on the day of his passing, he ought to be lauded — not only as a Hall of Fame offensive lineman for the Oakland Raiders (a reminder of when the franchise was feared rather than a joke), who led the union through a strike and repeated negotiations with some of the most tight-fisted rich men around.
Although the thoughts go to his family (more and more black men die younger lately, huh?), it leaves the NFLPA in a difficult spot as it anticipates another tough go-round with Lord Rog and the owners, who opted out of the current CBA because the players get too much, in their eyes. Upshaw managed to get the players a very, very good deal.
Upshaw was voted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1987, the same year he led union members on a strike that prompted owners to bring in replacement players. But in 1993 Upshaw helped negotiate a seven-year deal that included free agency and a salary cap, and ever since then player salaries have shot up along with league revenues.
This year, the players will receive about 60% of league revenues of $4.5 billion, according to figures provided by owners, and each team’s salary cap is at an all-time high of $116 million. The NFLPA has, since 1994, also benefited mightily from its own marketing arm, Players Inc., is now a multimillion dollar operation.
There’s his legacy as a union head right there.