Fighting For His Players: Gene Upshaw Dies

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.

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New Rule: Get Arrested And You’re Guilty

OK. So let me get this straight: aloof running back gets arrested while on a boat in Austin with his mother, his friends, and several female friends (all white, let’s note) and contests the police account, saying he was mistreated and abused. Last Saturday, he gets pulled over and arrested for DUI charges, but maintains that he passed a sobriety test and is innocent of the charges.

Without either of the charges being borne out, he is released by his employer. In what fucking world does this make any sort of sense whatsoever?

This is the world of the NFL, where you can lose your job even if you are completely innocent of any charges against you. Welcome to the real world of the NFL, Cedric Benson — the running back was released from the Bears after last weekend’s arrest, with GM Jerry Angelo expressing the franchise’s supposed frustration with the first-round pick.

Cedric displayed a pattern of behavior we will not tolerate. As I said this past weekend, you have to protect your job. Everyone in this organization is held accountable for their actions. When individual priorities overshadow team goals, we suffer the consequences as a team. Those who fail to understand the importance of ‘team’ will not play for the Chicago Bears.

Bears management needed an excuse to cut Benson. He has underperformed, but has not had the benefit of a well-put together O-line the past year or a quarterback that is any consistent threat in the passing game — as such, it meant he would probably get one more shot this year to show the form that made him a first round pick.

But voila, two arrests and no convictions are enough to throw him out the window. Just how an arrest without any form of conviction or basis was enough to get rid of Tank Johnson (I don’t mean the weapons charges, I mean the DUI afterwards that really wasn’t.) This is the world Roger Goodell has created and the standard he has set — and every other player in the league ought to be incensed (unless you are Jared Allen. now of the Vikings, which means you’re glad you got off easy last year in KC.)

If Benson pleaded guilty or no contest to either charge, it would be a different story. But as of right now, he believes both arrests are unjustified and is willing to challenge the matter in court. Would that the Bears be only that willing to allow due process to play out, but this is Lord Rog’s World, and frankly, it’s time Gene Upshaw and the NFLPA did something to exert some sort of check and balance on teams

The owners have handed the NFLPA a golden opportunity by deciding to drop out of the CBA for 2011.  Now Upshaw needs to prove his worth by giving the men he represents at least a chance at due process for off-the-field incidents.

Photo: Jim Prishing/Chicago Tribune

Why Gene Upshaw Must Go

By now you’ve likely heard about Chris Mortenson’s report regarding Ravens kicker and player rep Matt Stover’s email circulating about removing NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw by March 2009, and Upshaw’s insistence that he will be staying on as the head of the union.  The urgency on Stover’s behalf (and I presume a sizable contingent of the union, otherwise he wouldn’t float this at all) is because the owners are prepared to drop out of the collective bargaining agreement, creating an uncapped year in 2010 and, if it’s not resolved, a possible strike or lockout.

Upshaw should have been gone a while ago. I’ll try to outline this quickly:

1) Letting Roger Goodell run rampant on player discipline: Upshaw permitted a bad precedent to take place with regard to public discipline of players. No matter what your perception of Adam Jones, Chris Henry, and some of the more extreme examples, the NFLPA gave cursory objection to what was an unprecedented suspension policy, and even less fight in the case of someone like Odell Thurman — who was suspended for repeated DUIs and then was not reinstated after re-applying last July — without an explanation from the commissioner’s office as to why. This is a poor, poor precedent to allow.

2) Player protections in a booming sport: I understand the economics of football a little (but not much), and understand that signing an entire 53-man squad to guaranteed contracts is an impossibility. But the lack of protections for players who can be cut on a whim, most with very little in the way of warning or compensation, seems like something the union ought to have been addressing when the NFL effectively became the country’s most popular sport.

3) Medical issues with the veterans: Upshaw has been the most stubborn when dealing with retired players suffering from various medical ailments, making verbal miscues like threatening a former Patriots defensive player who said he wasn’t doing enough.  MLB’s union is something the NFLPA would do well to emulate on medical — they get lifetime coverage out of the deal in their CBA, and the failure to ensure better medical benefits for NFL players is a bad mark for his record.

These are the three big reasons, and it all comes because Upshaw has been way too close with Goodell and his predecessor, Paul Tagliabue. A bit more confrontation at the bargaining table would serve the players well, and the players probably need a new face to do it.