With all that is going on away from the field in this busy preseason, it went with little notice that Friday marked the two-year anniversary of the death of Gene Upshaw, the former Raider great and longtime chief of the NFL Players Association (NFLPA).
Of all of Upshaw’s many legacies and accomplishments, the most enduring may be his negotiation of the 2006 Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) between the NFLPA and the NFL. It is that agreement that has been and continues to be the source of labor unrest in football that is threatening the future of the game. In short, according to many owners, Upshaw did too good a job.
How did we get here?
ICONBrown was one of two dissenting votes for the current CBA.
To review, in March 2006 NFL ownership ratified the new CBA by a vote of 30-2. Ralph Wilson of the Bills and Mike Brown of the Bengals — the two dissenting votes — were seen as contrarians at the time, voices in the wilderness that dared to question an agreement that ensured labor peace and was an outgoing ovation to respected Commissioner Paul Tagliabue.
Soon after the ink was dry, however, more and more owners started to empathize with the initial doubt of Wilson and Brown (although they would never admit it). The deal has now been vilified as too rich for the players as the pace of rising player costs is outstripping that of team revenues.
I thought Upshaw did a masterful job in diverting the owners’ attention to revenue sharing while quietly slipping in the best deal the NFL players ever achieved.
On the day of that meeting that would shape our labor future, I remember calling our Packer representatives at the meeting, Bob Harlan and John Jones, every hour to see where we were on the player deal. They kept saying they were not even discussing player issues; the meeting was all about the owners revenue sharing plan. “Nothing about the labor deal?” I would ask. “No” they would respond, “We’re just talking revenue sharing.”
Finally, late that evening, Harlan called to say the deal was done and some of the details of the revenue sharing plan. “What about the player deal?” I asked. “Yes, that went through, but we really didn’t talk much about it.” My only response was “Huh?”
Upshaw had won. He had convinced ownership that they needed to work out their revenue sharing plan without help from the player side. He had created the specter of an uncapped year ahead that would change the way they do business irrevocably and make football look like baseball. He had invoked the ominous phrase “Once the Cap goes away, it’s not coming back” that stoked fear in the room, afraid their colleagues would be Steinbrenneresqe and drive player spending to new heights without a cap to apply the brakes.
And, of course, Upshaw had used his strong and long relationship with Tagliabue to convincing him to present a deal as an outgoing homage to his tenure as Commissioner and a testament to the labor peace the two of them had created for almost two decades. Now present Commissioner Roger Goodell and new NFLPA head DeMaurice Smith are trying to develop that type of relationship, although it cannot be forced and has had some rough beginnings.
The CBA finalized that day, of course, will now end two years prior to its stated expiration date as ownership opted out of the deal they ratified by a 30-2 margin two years later, in May of 2008, to bring the conclusion of the deal forward to end after this season. The deal was too good for the players. Translation: Upshaw had done too good a job.
As we now face an uncertain labor future, Upshaw’s impact lives on, both in the fact the NFLPA is now housed in a building bearing his name and the source of labor unrest is an agreement that bears his signature.
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