Gene Upshaw Sends Owners a Message

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 16, 2005 12:00 PM

Gene Upshaw said it as an aside, not a specific threat. He mentioned it almost casually. But it was also clear that he wants NFL team owners like the Dallas Cowboys' Jerry Jones to know that if they think it's going to be business as usual on every front during the sport's still-unresolved labor negotiations, they might want to think again.

Upshaw, head of the NFL Players Association, said during an interview this week that Jones probably is unaware that Upshaw hasn't yet officially signed off on funding the Cowboys are slated to receive for their planned new stadium under the league's G-3 loan program.

"There are some owners who want to have their cake and eat it too," Upshaw said. "One of those owners, I haven't signed off on G-3 for his stadium yet."

Jones has expressed skepticism about proposals to increase the amount of money that the league's wealthiest franchises share with less prosperous clubs. Such a plan for increased revenue-sharing among the teams probably will have to be in place in order to get the owners of the poorer clubs to vote to ratify any extension of the collective bargaining agreement with the players' union.

When pressed on the subject, Upshaw said he isn't necessarily saying that he would use his approval of the Cowboys' stadium funding as leverage to get Jones's support for a revenue-sharing plan that might pave the way for a new labor deal. He said he was just making an observation.

But it was a provocative observation, given the circumstances.

"I have not signed off," Upshaw said. "We have agreed that they're covered, but I have not signed off. They would be entitled to $75 million to $100 million. I don't think it's a [bargaining] chip. I don't know how close anyone is paying attention. I think they already think they've got it. I'm just pointing out that I haven't signed off on it yet."

The labor negotiations have been at a standstill, with Upshaw seeking to expand the pool of revenues from which the players are paid. The current labor deal runs through the 2007 season. But, unless the league and the union agree to an extension, the 2007 season would be played without a salary cap, and Upshaw said recently that he'd been telling players to get ready for a season without a cap. Upshaw said this week that he has continued to discuss the issues with NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue but there have been no breakthroughs.

"I've had some meetings with Paul, but we still don't have a proposal from them," Upshaw said. "People ask me all the time what it's going to take to get this moving. Well, it would be helpful if we had a proposal."

Upshaw Concerned About Signing-Bonus Cases

The trend league-wide is for teams to attempt to compel players to return bonus money from their contracts for misdeeds, as the Philadelphia Eagles are trying to do with deactivated wide receiver Terrell Owens.

Upshaw said the union has warned players and agents not to agree to contracts containing language that gives teams the right to force the return of bonus money. But those clauses continue to show up in contracts anyway, Upshaw said, because the players and agents compromise on the language in the give-back clauses during negotiations in exchange for more money.

"We knew this was coming," Upshaw said. "When T.O. signed that contract, we told him not to. We told him the language in there was bad, but he signed it anyway. All these issues with the signing bonuses, we're going to fix them when we get this new collective bargaining agreement. We can't tolerate teams going after signing bonuses every time a player spits on the sidewalk. We tell [players and agents] that the language in the contracts is going to hurt them, and they don't listen."

The remedy, Upshaw said, will be to have standard language for players' contracts addressing bonus-money give-backs written into the next collective bargaining agreement. But until there is a new labor deal, the union will have to rely on the players and agents to be more careful in the contract language to which they agree.

After tailback Ricky Williams abruptly retired before the 2004 season, an arbitrator ruled that Williams owes the Miami Dolphins $8.6 million for breach of contract. Williams's return to the club this season did not affect that ruling.

The Eagles have informed Owens that they will attempt to recoup $1.725 million in bonus money from him after an arbitrator upheld their recent four-game suspension of him without pay for conduct detrimental to the team and their deactivation of him for the final five games of the season. The Eagles are withholding Owens's pay for the final five games and counting it against the money they say that Owens now owes them, and the union has filed a grievance on Owens's behalf over that move.

The Detroit Lions have informed wide receiver Charles Rogers that they will try to force him to return $10.2 million of the $14.4 million in bonus money in his contract after he was suspended this season for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy. The union maintains that the clause in Rogers's contract requiring such a give-back is improper because the collective bargaining agreement says that only the league, not an individual team, can discipline a player for failing a drug test.

"We agreed to a penalty for failing a drug test, and they're writing contracts with another penalty," Upshaw said, without specifically mentioning Rogers. "You can't do that. It's cases like that where you really see the problem. Believe me, that will be addressed."

The Buffalo Bills also have threatened to pursue bonus money from wide receiver Eric Moulds if there are any further incidents involving him. Moulds returned to the team this week after being suspended for one game without pay following a sideline argument with an assistant coach in which he reportedly refused to re-enter a game. . . .

Upshaw said he thinks there is a good chance that the New Orleans Saints will be based at their training facility in Metairie, La., next season and split their home games between Baton Rouge, La., and the Superdome in New Orleans.

"If they can get the dome ready and the team goes back and trains in Metairie, you could split the schedule between there and Baton Rouge," Upshaw said. "You have to try to get them back to New Orleans as fast as you can. We have to give [New Orleans] a chance. When you talk to the players, they just want to know, 'Where are we going to be? Where are we going to live?' What would help the whole situation is to get them a playing schedule, and Paul is working on that. He's got a schedule he's looking at."

The team has been based in San Antonio since being displaced from New Orleans in August by Hurricane Katrina. The Saints are splitting this season's home schedule between San Antonio and Baton Rouge after Tagliabue moved their first home game of the season against the New York Giants in September to Giants Stadium.

An architectural firm hired to assess the damage to the Superdome concluded in a report released this week that repairs to the building could be completed in time for games to be played at the facility beginning Nov. 1.

Tagliabue has said the league's focus is to return the team to New Orleans, but league sources have said the franchise eventually could be moved to Los Angeles if New Orleans is unable to support the club. There have been reports that Saints owner Tom Benson favors keeping the team in San Antonio.

The league and the union have awarded Saints players $40,000 each from the NFL's fund for performance-based pay. Those bonuses are for enduring this season's hardships. Upshaw said that he and Tagliabue continue to consider other possible measures to help the Saints be competitive next season. Upshaw said it remains possible that the Saints could be awarded additional compensatory draft picks for players they lose in free agency, and free-agent players could be offered relocation bonuses and extra severance credit for signing with the Saints.

League officials say they hope to add some stability to the situation by announcing the Saints' schedule for the 2006 season next month, several months before other teams' schedules are announced.

Extension for Davis

Cleveland linebacker Andra Davis signed a five-year contract extension with the Browns through the 2010 season. The deal keeps him from being an unrestricted free agent in the spring. . . .

Quarterback Tom Brady was on the practice field with his New England Patriots teammates Thursday--although the extent of his participation wasn't clear--and it appears increasingly likely that he will be in the lineup for Saturday's game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers despite an injury to his left shin. A victory would clinch the AFC East title for the Patriots.

On Darrell Russell

Usually when a person dies suddenly and violently at a young age, the first reaction is disbelief.

Unfortunately, when it comes to former NFL defensive lineman Darrell Russell, the reaction to his death Thursday at age 29 was just the opposite.

Russell, the second overall selection in the 1997 NFL draft who was a two-time Pro Bowl selection for the Oakland Raiders, was killed in a high-speed car crash in Los Angeles. Virtually anyone who came across him during his time in pro football knew he was on a self-destructive path that very well could end in tragedy.

My exposure to Russell was brief. He had a short stint with the Washington Redskins in 2003 while I was covering the team. The Redskins took a big chance by signing him, but they were desperate for help. That desperation led them to overlook his past problems that included rape allegations and drug-related suspensions.

The most surprising thing I discovered about Russell during his stay with the Redskins was what a thoughtful, articulate person he was. If you'd ask him a question, he'd actually think before answering, and then he'd say something that was truthful and made sense. If he was out of shape, he said it. If someone else deserved to be playing ahead of him, he said it. It was difficult to reconcile what you saw -- a person who was, in many ways, so likable and personable -- with the terrible things he had done.

He never got into shape during his Redskins tenure. Still, it was clear that he had unusual athletic gifts for such an immense man, and he could have been a dominating player again if he'd put his mind to it. But his stay with the Redskins ended badly, as team officials gave up on him after he skipped a practice. I always wondered how such an athletically blessed, seemingly intelligent man could make such bad decisions in life. Sadly, Darrell Russell's life ended as a cautionary tale about wasted potential.

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