After Gene Upshaw, the longtime president of the National Football League Players Association, died suddenly in August 2008, a family struggle broke out over his estate. The item most contested: a previously undisclosed $15 million deferred compensation fund the union paid to his widow in Great Falls.
The payment has outraged some retired NFL players, who have long claimed that Upshaw did not represent them as fairly as he did current players during his 25-year career with the union.
“Wherever Gene is, he should be ashamed of himself, and his family should be ashamed for taking that money,” said Bob Grant, a former linebacker for the Washington Redskins and Baltimore Colts who is part of a group of retired players suing the NFLPA and Players Inc., the NFLPA’s for-profit arm, for licensing money they say was denied to older players.
“We have great players from the past who played 10 years or more collecting no more than $200 per month,” Grant said.
“There’s no other union leader in this country who was compensated at the same rate as he was compensated,” said Bernie Parrish, a former Cleveland Browns defensive back who was part of a class-action suit that won a $28 million jury verdict against Players Inc. in 2008.
The fund, set up by Players Inc. in 1997, emerged in a filing by Upshaw’s son, Eugene Upshaw III, 40, of Orlando, who sued his father’s second wife to have his father’s will thrown out and his stepmother removed as executor of the estate. Gene Upshaw’s will left all of his assets to his second wife.
The trial was scheduled to start Monday in Fairfax County Circuit Court, but a settlement was reached on the eve of the trial. The terms have been kept confidential. Theresa L. Upshaw’s attorney, John Keith, declined to comment; John Hale, Eugene Upshaw’s attorney, did not return calls.
Elsewhere in the Fairfax courthouse, the probate file for Gene Upshaw’s estate reveals not only the $15 million payment but an additional $1.73 million in “past due compensation” from the NFLPA, also paid to his widow.
A deferred compensation fund is money an employee earns but agrees to receive at a later date. The money is typically invested, and taxes aren’t paid until the money is given to the employee. Details of how Upshaw’s $15 million fund worked were not available.
The Upshaws lived in Great Falls, where they kept eight luxury vehicles and a 32-foot boat, the probate inventory states. Gene Upshaw also owned a home in the Lake Tahoe area of California.
NFLPA spokesman George Atallah declined to discuss the payout to Upshaw. An NFL Alumni Association spokesman did not return messages.
Upshaw was a Hall of Fame offensive lineman for the Oakland Raiders from 1967 to 1981. In 1983, he became executive director of the union, and he is widely credited with increasing the share of NFL revenue paid to the players, largely by helping to create free agency.
Government records show that Upshaw was paid a $4.3 million salary in 2006 and a $2.4 million bonus from Players Inc., making him the highest-paid union chief in pro sports by far.
He was looking toward retirement when pancreatic cancer was suddenly diagnosed on Aug. 17, 2008, when he was in the Lake Tahoe area. He died three days later, at age 63.
Upshaw’s will was signed on the day he died, court records show. His son contended that Upshaw was so sick that he could not have been aware enough to know what he was approving. Norman and Sandra Singer, friends of Upshaw’s from McLean, acknowledged in court documents that they had to sign Upshaw’s will for him before he died. Norman Singer declined to comment Wednesday.
The trial that was to have taken place this week before Fairfax Circuit Court Judge Charles Maxfield was going to be a showdown of experts over Upshaw’s ability to approve the will on his deathbed, court records show.
In a filing by Theresa Upshaw’s attorneys, the defense acknowledged that “the largest asset of Mr. Upshaw’s estate is a deferred compensation plan which was valued at approximately $15 million at Mr. Upshaw’s death. The account was established in 1997 by the NFL Players Inc.”
Players Inc. is used to negotiate lucrative marketing agreements for such items as video games — including EA Sports’s “Madden NFL” — football cards and posters. Upshaw was one of the directors of Players Inc., which retired players say was a conflict of interest.
In 2007, a group of former players brought a class-action suit against Players Inc. in Los Angeles, claiming that the NFLPA recruited them into signing licensing agreements and then actively worked to keep them from making any money from projects such as versions of the Madden games that feature “classic” teams. The 2,000 players were awarded $7 million in actual damages and $21 million in punitive damages by a jury in 2008.
Another class of players, headed by Grant, filed a suit against Players Inc. in April on behalf of players excluded from the first case.
“Gene Upshaw took money from players who really, really needed money for years,” Grant said. “He did it in life, and now he’s turned around and he’s done it in death.”
Staff reporter Rick Maese contributed to this report.