This time, Gene Upshaw has it wrong. The National Football League has been racist for a whole lot of reasons in a whole lot of seasons, but not in labor negotiations. The owners do not discriminate there; they don't deal easily with anyone.

Only threats of an antitrust suit got NFL players their first benefits, in 1959. The man mainly responsible for bringing that about, Creighton Miller, found himself almost a nonperson to the coach he helped hire, Paul Brown.

Miller was involved in founding the Cleveland Browns, to the point, he said, of asking Brown if he would leave Ohio State to become their first coach.

A decade later, in the mid-'50s, Miller was the attorney players such as Frank Gifford, Don Shula, Norm Van Brocklin, Joe Schmidt and others hired to form the NFL Players Association and argue their case with the owners.

"Brown was so furious he had me removed from the 1946 team picture," Miller said from his Cleveland law offices. "The thing is, whoever did it also took the right arm off the guy standing in back of me. They had to paint it back on."

Miller was the first leader of the players association to experience what Upshaw is enduring now. The owners did a magnificent job of painting Ed Garvey as a wild maverick incapable of seeing logic if it whacked him upside the head.

Upshaw was supposed to be the calm thinker able to deal with rich men unaccustomed either to largesse or losing. His is the squeeze that seems inevitable from the NFL's familiar large vise. In collective bargaining, the only two colors owners see are red (for anger) and green (for money).

The idea that strength in numbers against the owners might be useful occurred more than 30 years ago to many players now on the other side of the current strike. Or at least publicly neutral.

"We wanted better communication," said the president/general manager of the Seattle Seahawks, Mike McCormack. "Some laundry money. Per diem expenses. We played six preseason games, and guys who got cut would get nothing."

In the 1940s, according to former Washington Post columnist Shirley Povich, Redskins tackle Bill Young suffered a knee injury against the Giants in New York -- and was shipped home in a freight car.

McCormack was blocking his way to the Hall of Fame for the Cleveland Browns when this historic headline appeared in an afternoon newspaper Nov. 29, 1956: "Pro Gridders Form Union."

In truth, the bond purposely was called an association. The players wanted something less strident than union for such as Redskins owner George Preston Marshall.

Torgy Torgeson is a Redskins assistant who joined some Redskins teammates in approaching Marshall about the players joining forces.

"His mood wasn't good," Torgeson recalled. "His thing was that if we formed a union" -- here Torgeson had to chuckle at the irony -- "there would be a strike."

The first NFL strikers had the same mixed feelings as their larger, younger brothers hoisting picket signs about NFL practice areas these last 12 days.

"I was ready to go in when {the 1974 strike} broke," said former Redskins linebacker Rusty Tillman, now special teams coach with the Seahawks. "So were some of the other younger guys."

Tillman believes that strike, which ended after two preseason games, cost him a chance to seriously challenge Harold McLinton for the starting middle linebacker job.

"George {Allen} had promised I'd get a chance," said Tillman. "When the strike got settled, I started two games -- and played well. But George wanted to get set for the opener, so Harold started the last preseason game and that was that.

"That kinda was it {for his dream of being more than a special teams player}. But I have no regrets. I never carried a picket sign. I followed the herd, like everyone else, and never felt good about it."

The Cincinnati Bengals' coach, Sam Wyche, was a reserve Redskins quarterback during the strike of '74. No, he was not among those taunting a young Joe Theismann on a bus moving through picket lines and into RFK Stadium.

"Joe was taking my job at the time," said Wyche, who later that year was traded to the Lions.

Wyche and most other coaches try to remain partisan and yet neutral. They must remain loyal to management; they also want to maintain relations with the strikers, so a return will be as quickly harmonious as possible.

"I also own a business," Wyche said, "so I know the problem they {NFL owners} have. It's easy to see."

Tillman was excited about the unknown possibilities of suddenly assembled teams going at each other in games that count.

"I promise some wild things," he said. "It's just gonna be crazy. Wild. {As a coach,} you just can't get too upset by this."

Miller's approach in the '50s was that the players ought to benefit as the league grew. If the owners realistically could not afford a pension, group life and health insurance certainly were possible.

"We'd go to the league meetings," the former Notre Dame halfback said, "and they tried to ignore us. I wasn't very popular. It was a helluva fight for 10 years.

"What really helped were the House and Senate hearings {in 1957, that followed the Supreme Court ruling that all pro sports except baseball must abide by antitrust laws}.

"The hearings gave us a vehicle for public attention. Players such as Van Brocklin and Kyle Rote testified. So did George Halas. Finally, {commissioner} Bert Bell testified and said: 'I recognize the union {as the bargaining agent}.' "

As a player, Shula was active in helping form the union. As a coach with the Baltimore Colts, Miller said, he gave the union entre to his clubhouse.

Miller said current players might be better off fighting the league through Congress and the courts than with strikes. Trouble is, the union years ago bargained away free agency and the elimination of the college draft won in the courts.

The player whose late-'40s lawsuit ended with the landmark Supreme Court ruling, Bill Radovich, said what strikers and other angry players have repeated over the years: "{We} shouldn't be treated like a piece of furniture."

This recent fortnight, only the NFL furniture has stayed in place.