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Union Boss Led NFL's Explosive Growth

Gene Upshaw, the executive director of the National Football League Players Association since 1983, also played with the Oakland and Los Angeles Raiders from 1967 until 1981. The seven-time Pro Bowl selection and 11-time All-Pro died Wednesday night at age 63.
Gene Upshaw, the executive director of the National Football League Players Association since 1983, also played with the Oakland and Los Angeles Raiders from 1967 until 1981. The seven-time Pro Bowl selection and 11-time All-Pro died Wednesday night at age 63. (Morry Gash - AP)

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By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 22, 2008

Gene Upshaw, 63, the plain-spoken and controversial leader of the National Football League players' union who spent more than two decades as a pivotal figure in the league's rise to the top of the sports landscape in this country, died Wednesday night at a house he owned in California.

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Upshaw, whose primary residence was in Great Falls, went to a hospital in Truckee, Calif., on Sunday to undergo tests and had pancreatic cancer diagnosed on Monday, according to Thom Mayer, the union's medical director. Upshaw died without having told even close associates about his condition.

"He had no idea until Sunday he had any problem, nor did we or anyone else," Mayer said. "His family and I were the only ones who knew. Gene had a very aggressive form of pancreatic cancer."

Upshaw was a Hall of Fame player and had served as executive director of the NFL Players Association since 1983. He led players through a strike in 1987 and later in long antitrust litigation against the league. That litigation resulted in the current system of free agency and the league's salary cap, which were implemented in 1993. He formed a close relationship with former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue that gave the sport labor peace and aided its growth into a television-ratings behemoth and a nearly $8 billion-a-year industry.

"I think Gene is one of the most pivotal people in the history of the NFL," one close ally, former players' union president Trace Armstrong, said in a telephone interview yesterday. "Players, past and present, had no better friend than Gene Upshaw. With time, people will come to fully understand and appreciate his contributions and his legacy. It was Gene's strength and conviction that got the players to where they are today."

But Upshaw had many critics who accused him of being too cozy with management. A movement by some players to oust him from his job was thwarted this spring. His detractors blamed him for the fact that NFL player contracts are not guaranteed, unlike in other sports in which athletes have lower risks of major injury. He also came under heavy attack in recent years for allegedly not sufficiently helping former players with their medical and financial needs.

Former Minnesota Vikings offensive lineman Brent Boyd, one of the players who had clashed with Upshaw over benefits for retirees, said yesterday he didn't feel the blame for the dispute rested entirely with Upshaw.

"I would say no life is easily reduced to one issue, and we had our issues and he's caused some suffering, but there's still some humanity and our hearts and prayers go out to his family," Boyd said. "Upshaw was an easy target, but the problem was bigger than him. It is the institution itself and the commissioner. He would be the piƱata and take the beating and make it seem that one man was taking the shots, but the problem is more than just him."

In defending himself, Upshaw argued that he had done as much as he could for the former players and his most pressing responsibility was to help current players. He said guaranteed payments to players had risen dramatically, primarily through bonuses awarded when new contracts were signed. He said his job was to help make the sport as prosperous as possible and then try to ensure players got their fair share of league revenue.

The deal he completed with Tagliabue in 2006 guaranteed the players about 60 percent of total league revenue, about $4.5 billion. Owners viewed it as so one-sided that they voted in May to exercise a clause reopening the deal.

"The results speak for themselves," said former Vikings running back Robert Smith, who was active in union issues. "A lot of people forget there's no such thing as unanimous support in any body you represent. But from a results standpoint, what more could you want? The retired players, some of them are getting four times what they would have gotten if Gene hadn't been there. The stuff about being too close to Tagliabue, I'd like to have anyone explain to me how the players haven't been served by Gene. The owners just opted out of this labor deal because it was such a bad deal for them and such a good deal for the players."

League leaders and owners praised Upshaw in glowing terms yesterday.

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