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For Upshaw, running union a labor of love
By PAUL DOMOWITCH
WITH THE CLOCK ticking on his final days as NFL commissioner, Paul Tagliabue flew to Dusseldorf, Germany, in late May to take in the NFL Europe championship game between Amsterdam and Frankfurt. Sitting next to him on the 8-hour flight was a frequent traveling companion, NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw.
"This was going to be his last one, so I wanted to go with him," Upshaw says during a recent interview with the Daily News at the union's Washington, D.C., headquarters.
NFL Europe still is in business today mainly because of Tagliabue and Upshaw. It's a money loser that most of the league's owners have long wanted to euthanize. But together, the commissioner and the union chief managed to convince them that it provides benefits to the NFL that can't be measured strictly in dollars and cents.
"It's the only other place you can play football when you're not playing here," Upshaw says. "It's the only place you can train officials. It's the only place you can send coaches and players [to get experience]. It's the only place you can have players that might want to be TV analysts get some experience.
"It gives you a chance to develop your talent both on and off the field. We look at it from the broad perspective, not just how much money you're going to make from it."
That kind of thinking illustrates why Upshaw's tenure, in the minds of most, has been so successful since he took over in 1983. And he's more than happy to confront those who criticize him, wondering aloud whether the source of their discontent is tinged with racism.
It's rare for a union boss and a company CEO to be on the same page about anything. The relationship between Upshaw and Tagliabue is unlike any you'll see in labor, in or out of professional sports. They are good friends who consider each other partners in a $6 billion-a-year business rather than fist-shaking, table-pounding adversaries.
Many hard-core labor types think Upshaw's relationship with Tagliabue is unseemly. They think it's impossible to represent your rank and file competently if you're close buds with management. They view Upshaw as a puppet and his union as the weakest in professional sports, even though the league's salary cap has nearly tripled in the last 12 years and the NFL's average annual salary has skyrocketed from $120,000 to $1.4 million in the more than 2 decades the Hall of Fame offensive lineman has run it.
"Paul and I have had discussions about how people perceive us," Upshaw says. "We have a relationship where we can just sit down and talk. Without even talking about business. We can talk about the history [of the game]. About what he's been through, what I've been through. All of those things are why we've had success...
"Probably the most important thing Paul has done is kept us out of the courtroom. He knew and I knew that if we stayed out of the courtroom and used the assets, which is the players, we could grow the game in a way that is unbelievable. And that's what's happened."
The courtroom is where the NFL was in 1989 when Tagliabue succeeded Pete Rozelle as commissioner. The league and union were embroiled in a bloody 6-year legal battle over free agency. Before that were bitter strikes in 1982 and '87.
Shortly after Tagliabue took over, Upshaw made the boldest move of his career, one that ultimately would change the face of the NFL. After a federal appeals court ruled that antitrust laws could not apply to the league because the NFLPA was a labor union, he decertified his union. With the NFLPA no longer a collective bargaining unit, the league was stripped of its antitrust protection, which ultimately led to a 1993 settlement that gave the players true free agency, along with a salary cap.
Since then, the players and owners have lived in relative peace and harmony, which has helped the league prosper and make lots and lots of money for both sides.
"When Paul took over, one of the first things he did was call me and said, 'Let's get together for dinner.' We met at a little [Washington D.C.] restaurant up on Columbia Road. From that point on, that's been the difference.
"We have agreed on a lot of things and we have disagreed on a lot of things. But it's nobody else's business. It doesn't advance his cause or my cause to have the Washington Post or the New York Times or the Philadelphia Daily News making a headline out of it, when the real issue is how do we solve the problem, rather than become the problem.
"It's never been about either one of us trying to one-up the other. It's always been, what can we do to make our product better and grow it. If people don't understand that, that's their problem, not ours."
Upshaw said his close relationship with Tagliabue is the main reason the owners and players got a new labor extension done in March. Upshaw and the union went into the negotiations wanting two things: a change in the salary-cap formula to factor in previously unshared revenue such as luxury-box income, concessions, parking and local sponsorship agreements, and a revenue-sharing agreement by the owners to assist teams not making as much money as others.
The owners eventually agreed to the change in the cap formula. But the revenue-sharing plan was another matter. The league's higher-revenue teams, including the Eagles, weren't eager to turn over some of their hard-earned money to other clubs. They also didn't understand why this was any of Upshaw's business in the first place. As long as his players were getting their cut of the league's total revenues, why on earth did he care if there was a growing gap between the league's rich and not as rich.
"Gene made it clear he didn't want a deal without enhanced revenue-sharing," said Harold Henderson, the league's executive vice president of labor relations since 1991. "We said over and over to him, 'It's not your issue. Why are you so hung up on that?' Some of the owners to the bitter end were still saying, 'I don't understand why he cares.' "
Upshaw cared, because he felt the NFL slowly but surely was heading down the same path of disparity as major league baseball, in which you have teams like the Florida Marlins with a $14.9 million payroll and teams like the Yankees spending about $200 million on players. That kind of out-of-whack situation apparently doesn't bother baseball's union people. But it bothers Upshaw.
"It doesn't do any good to have half the teams doing well and half the teams not doing well," Upshaw said. "The more closely you get to the baseball model, the harder it is to fix, because as the revenues get bigger and bigger and bigger, nobody wants to fix it.
"The argument [the owners] kept making was it's none of our business. That the union shouldn't be worried about revenue-sharing. That it's an internal matter for the owners. Well, it is. Except we have a salary cap in our league. When you have a salary cap, it changes all that. It's not just their business, it's our business, too."
With the March deadline for a labor extension looming, the owners were inclined to call Upshaw's bluff. But Tagliabue convinced the owners that Upshaw was very serious. On March 8, less than a half-hour before the deadline, the owners emerged from 2 days of meetings at a Dallas hotel with a revenue-sharing plan. The vote was 30-2.
"I'm telling you, if Paul and I didn't have the kind of relationship we have, we wouldn't have an extension right now," says Upshaw, who was on a plane to Hawaii for the NFLPA's annual convention when the deal passed. "I can tell you that with absolute certainty. Because I had walked away. I was done [negotiating]. Paul knew that. He had to convince his group that I was serious about it, and he did."
The CBA extension, which runs through the 2011 season, guarantees the players 59.5 percent of the league's total football revenue over the next 4 years and 60 percent in the final 2 years of the deal. And the revenue-sharing plan will allow teams with older stadiums to remain competitive.
"We have another 10 stadiums we still need to build," says Upshaw, whose union is the only one in professional sports that has invested money in the construction of new venues. "Until we can get that done, those teams aren't going to grow. Minnesota, Oakland, San Francisco, San Diego... that group at the bottom [of the revenue scale] are all in old stadiums. I've been around long enough to remember when they opened all those stadiums, and we thought they were great. Now, they're a piece of crap and need to be replaced."
Gene Upshaw initially had planned a career in politics after his playing career was over. His father, Gene Sr., had been politically active, serving on the city council back in Upshaw's hometown of Robstown, Texas, and also running for mayor. During his 15 years with the Oakland Raiders, Upshaw - who was nicknamed "The Governor" by his teammates - was actively involved with the Democratic Party. Then-California Gov. Jerry Brown had appointed him to a couple of state boards, and he even considered a run for the state Assembly when he retired.
"I knew that's what I wanted to do," Upshaw says. "But I never got the chance. I ended up coming here."
The NFLPA wasn't much of a union when Upshaw succeeded Ed Garvey in 1983. It was coming off a failed 57-day strike the year before and was more than $4 million in debt. Upshaw's first contract called for an $85,000-a-year salary, but he took less than half of that, so the union could pay the bills.
"When I took the job, I took it for 1 year," he says. "I told the players at the time that within that year, they'd know whether I could do the job and I'd know whether I wanted to continue to do the job."
One year has turned into 23. A union that was on life support when Upshaw took over now is thriving. It has more than $100 million in the bank and another $100 million in assets. The NFL player payroll last year was $2.8 billion and is expected to surpass $3 billion in 2006.
"You don't hear our players talking about not being paid enough anymore," says Buffalo safety Troy Vincent, the NFLPA president and probable successor to Upshaw. "The salaries are more than fair now. I don't think the Donovan McNabbs of the world will ever complain. The Michael Vicks, the Terrell Owenses, the Peyton Mannings, the Marvin Harrisons, the Troy Vincents, the Drew Bledsoes, the Brian Dawkinses... we don't have room [to complain]."
Still, some critics still contend that the NFLPA is a company union and that Upshaw is nothing more than a pawn of Tagliabue and the owners. They point out that the average NFL salary ($1.4 million) still lags well behind major league baseball ($2.5 million) and the NBA ($5 million). They point out that guaranteed contracts, which are standard in baseball and basketball, are few and far between in football.
Earlier this year, Marvin Miller, baseball's former union czar, fired a broadside at Upshaw and his union in an interview in The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J.
"Every league's union except the NFL's has chosen to hire professional leadership," Miller said. "The NFL Players Association hired a former player. You see the results."
Upshaw just shrugs when asked about the criticism.
"With all due respect to attorneys, when God issued brains, they weren't the only ones that got them," he says. "What has helped me more than anything else in the last 23 years is that the players have trusted my judgment and have trusted what I've done. When I tell them this is a good deal, they believe me."
Upshaw says it's impractical to compare the average salary of NFL players with that of baseball or basketball players, because his union has more than twice as many members as baseball and more than three times as many as the NBA. He also disputes the suggestion that there are no guaranteed contracts in the NFL. He said more than 50 percent of the money that will be paid out to NFL players this season will be guaranteed, most of it in the form of signing bonuses.
"If you took the first 3 years of Carson Palmer's contract and the first 3 years of LeBron James' contract, Palmer is getting more money," Upshaw says of the Cincinnati Bengals quarterback, the first selection in the 2003 draft. "Look at last year's No. 1 [draft] pick [Alex Smith]. The 49ers gave him something like $22 million in guaranteed money before he ever threw a pass. And Houston already has given [this year's No. 1 pick] Mario Williams a lot more guaranteed money than Smith got.
"What does that tell you? It tells you that these guys aren't going to be getting cut in a year or 2 or 3. So, whatever they've got in the rest of their contract is, for all intents and purpose, guaranteed, too. Because that's the way the system is set up."
While people on the outside occasionally have questioned the effectiveness of Upshaw's leadership, his players seldom have. The one notable exception was in 1993 and '94, after the owners and players finally ended their long legal battle and agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement that gave the players unprecedented free agency and a percentage of gross revenues. It also set up a salary cap, which nearly led to a mutiny when teams began releasing veterans to clear cap space.
Eventually, Upshaw persuaded the players to remain united.
"It kind of reminds me of what they told the black slaves after they finally freed them," Upshaw says. "They told them how much they loved them and how much they cared about them. They said, 'Don't worry about us beating you and making you work all day and not being able to have a family.' They tried to convince them they were better off on the plantation [than being free].
"It was the same way with the players. They finally had their freedom, but they still believed the owners cared about them. We had to break that mentality down and make [players] understand that they didn't really care about them. That it was about business."
Before Harold Henderson was hired as the NFL's chief labor negotiator in '91, he spent more than a decade in the same job with Amtrak. Before that, he was a successful Washington, D.C., labor attorney. He says that Upshaw has been as effective as any union leader he's sat across the table from.
"Gene's been a long-term strategic thinker," he says. "He's been a pain in my butt much of the time, but he's a tough, hard-nosed, savvy guy who's prepared to fight for what he thinks he deserves. He's been a very worthy opponent.
"I think Gene has provided as good and maybe better representation for his constituents as anybody in the country. Some people will challenge whether he's even the best in professional sports. But from my perspective, he's gotten them a helluva deal."
Upshaw says he believes that the color of his skin has had more than a little to do with some of the criticism he has received.
"There was a lot of doubt about whether I could do the job," he says. "Personally, I think a lot of it has to do with my race. It's a factor, and I know that. But that's OK. It's not going to stop me from doing what I have to do. But it does enter the picture from time to time. They don't want to accept that I can do this job. It's always a little tougher. Ask [NBA union chief] Billy Hunter. He'll tell you the same thing."
Henderson, another African-American, agrees with Upshaw.
"I think some of it has been [racially motivated]," he says. "He has a union that is blacker than most. Some of those comments suggest a hint of racism. It may be subtle and indirect. Maybe even unknowing. But the suggestion is that our player population is incapable of electing effective leadership. That they're not smart enough to know whether they're well off or not. That they need a smart white lawyer to tell them what they need."
The NFL has had a smart white lawyer leading them for the last 17 years. Now, with Tagliabue retiring, it is searching for a new commissioner. Interestingly, Upshaw's name has turned up on the milelong list of replacement candidates. But he said he really isn't interested, even if the owners are.
With Tagliabue retiring, with labor peace pretty much assured for another 5 years, with his 61st birthday coming up in a few months, there has been speculation that Upshaw also might soon ride off into the sunset. His current contract, which pays him a little less than $3 million annually, expires in March 2008, which is just about the time the 35-year-old Vincent probably will be ready to hang up his cleats.
For now, all Upshaw says is that he won't stick around beyond 2010 because the union has a mandatory retirement age of 65. "When it's time to go, I'll know it before the players do," he says.
The new CBA extension includes a clause that allows either side to void the deal in 2008 or 2009 if they are unhappy with it. That probably won't happen, but Upshaw says he needs to make sure his players are prepared for the possibility.
"It's going to be a bitter fight next time, and we need to be prepared," he says. "We can't sit here in my mind and think we have a deal until 2011. I'm preparing for if the deal ends in 2008. I want to make sure the union is in position to continue the growth that we've achieved."
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