The NFL lost one of their legends last week when Gene Upshaw unexpectedly passed away from pancreatic cancer. Upshaw’s legacy will be remembered as a Hall of Fame player, and as a man who fought for the players so that they would be able to have fair compensation and benefits from the owners.
Upshaw, who was the Executive Director of the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) since 1983, was unfairly labeled a “house man” who was working on behalf of the owners instead of the players. That notion was further fueled by a quote from Bryant Gumbel in his closing remarks on HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumble.” Gumble had a message for the new NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
“Before he cleans out his office, have Paul Tagliabue show you where he keeps Gene Upshaw’s leash,” Gumble said. “By making the docile head of the players union his person pet, your predecessor has kept peace without giving players the kind of guarantees other pros take for granted. Try to make sure no one competent ever replaces Upshaw on your watch.”
Those sentiments from Gumble could not be further from the truth because the players have greatly benefited from Upshaw’s leadership.
In 1982 Upshaw negotiated for the unthinkable. He argued that the players were entitled to a percentage of the NFL’s gross revenues. No other sport had even thought of giving their players that type of deal, and NFL executives were outraged by the notion.
Upshaw eventually won that battle, and today the NFL players make 60 percent of the NFL’s gross revenues, which is more than any other U.S. sports league.
In 1987 Upshaw led the NFLPA to a strike and argued for free agency, which would give the players more rights over where they played. Upshaw won that battle to the dismay of the owner, who fought him with every high priced lawyer that they had. Upshaw has also fought for the players to have guarantees and signing bonuses in their contracts.
The current collective bargaining agreement, which was negotiated by Upshaw, is so much in favor of the players that the owners have decided to opt out of it.
If Upshaw was a “house man” he was not a very good one because the owners certainly wish that the players did not have the benefits that they have today. Before Upshaw took office the owners had total control over the players, and did not pay them fair compensation. Today the players have more control over their careers than ever, and they are reaping the financial benefits of Upshaw’s hard work.
Upshaw has been a legendary figure for the NFL since his career as an offensive lineman began in 1967.After he graduated from Texas A&I University (Now Texas A&M), where he became a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc., Upshaw was drafted by the Oakland Raiders in the first round.
Upshaw played in three Super Bowls, winning two of them, was selected to seven Pro Bowls, was an 11-time All-Pro selection, and was named to the NFL 1970s All-Decade team and the NFL 75th Anniversary All-Time team. Upshaw was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1987.
Upshaw was dominant as a player and he paved the way for the financial successes of the current players. Very few men have left an impact on the league that Upshaw did. The NFL has lost one of their truly great figures.