Gene Upshaw knew when his NFL Players Association and the league agreed to a new deal in March of 2006 that the owners were likely to opt out two years later.
“They gave me more than I asked for,’’ he laughed during a phone conversation a year or so later.
That extension was done because the owners didn’t want an uncapped year in 2007, which is what would have happened had they not rammed through an agreement in the basement of a Dallas hotel while the players were meeting in Hawaii. Paul Tagliabue, then the commissioner, did the deed, bringing together a lot of different factions more concerned with revenue sharing among themselves than dealing with the union, then rode off into the sunset thinking he had succeeded at his last major task as commissioner.
What neither side counted on was Upshaw’s death. A lot of people are convinced that it caused what is happening now — a lockout, court cases and no guarantee at all that the 2011 NFL season will start on time. If at all.
This is not to blame the union (or decertified union) for what’s happening now. There is blame all around, starting with the moves by the owners, who had record television ratings last fall; are due billions from the networks, and come across at times as men looking simply to shovel in more than their share of the gold.
But there are some among them — including Roger Goodell and leading owners like Robert Kraft; John Mara; Art Rooney II, and even Jerry Jones — who may privately wish this didn’t happen. Who, in fact, believe it wouldn’t have happened had Upshaw not passed away in August 2008 of pancreatic cancer that not even those closest to him knew he had until after he died. Because the owners knew Upshaw would eventually deal; that he would let Jeffrey Kessler, the litigious attorney, be the attack dog and then pull him back; and that a deal would be reached that would give the owners a higher percentage of the revenue but leave the union with its pride intact and more than enough money.
The problem is that into the void left by the death stepped DeMaurice Smith, a very smart Washington lawyer, but one who had to learn the lay of the land from the start. He didn’t know the league from the inside and the league didn’t know him; he didn’t have Upshaw’s contacts to help him, and he misread things from the start — one of his very smart aides misread who was who among the owners, suggesting to me early on that one very dovish man was a hawk based simply on the owner’s public statements.
It ended with Kessler taking control. It ended with Bob Batterman, the attack-dog negotiator hired by the league, having more power than he should. It ended in one court that ruled for the players and an appeals court that seems read to rule for the owners.
And while there is talk behind the scenes, there is no guarantee it will come to fruition, leaving the season in jeopardy.
But probably fate.
It’s possible that if the owners knew Upshaw was dying, they might not have been so quick to opt out of the contract. If Gene had lived ...
We’d probably have a deal now.
As it is, everyone loses.