NFL players received startling news this morning that union head Gene Upshaw, the Hall of Fame lineman, has died at 63.
Upshaw had served as the executive director of the National Football League Players Association for more than 25 years after a distinguished 16-year playing career.
The NFLPA entered a challenging period in May when NFL owners voted unanimously to opt out of the collective bargaining agreement with players, a development that could lead to an uncapped season in 2010 and a lockout in 2011. The labor deal had been forged in March 2006 and was hailed as a victory for players. It's a complicated issue and matters have been heightened in the last year with some objection in the ranks to the way Upshaw has conducted business and a plan for future leadership. Upshaw, whose condition was not known publicly, vowed to forge ahead.
Upshaw had a strong working relationship with former commissioner Paul Tagliabue, some say too cozy, but the facts are undeniable that players have benefited handsomely in his tenure. He guided the players through the strike in 1987 and broke through with free agency a little more than five years later.
Don't underestimate the impact of Upshaw's passing because this is a critical time for the NFLPA.
Upshaw visited Halas Hall last September to meet with players. I posed to him a question that was becoming more popular at the time and is still squarely in focus: What was his position on escalating bonus money for the top 10 picks in the draft each year? Oakland's JaMarcus Russell had landed guaranteed money in line with what Peyton Manning and Tom Brady received on their current deals. You may not agree with his answer, but you cannot argue with the logic from a player's standpoint.
"The alternative, what you always hear, is why can't you control what the rookies get?" Upshaw said. "Our position has always been that you're only a rookie for a year, after that you're a veteran. Then, that contract will help even if it is a huge contract. If the Raiders are going to pay JaMarcus Russell whatever he got, you better believe Tom Brady and all the rest of those guys are saying, `Hey, wait a minute. If he's getting all that and he hasn't thrown a ball, what am I worth?' Tony Romo, he's going to be up now.
"It sort of gets overplayed because if you look at the first five guys, they're the guys who really make a lot. Then you look at the next five guys, by the time you get to the 10th guy, the [salaries] really start down. It's only the first five, and then the next five. That's why we put in the rule that the first-round draft picks are capped at six-year deals, and now the second-round picks can only sign four-year deals [so the other picks can get to free agency sooner].
"The Bears weren't the only team having second-round picks sign five-year contracts, and then those guys are delayed getting to free agency. When you see the revenues grow and see everything going up, there is hardly any way around a guy making the money. It's all guaranteed money and we want them to get as much as they can get, even as a rookie. You can't screw the rookies because there are no assurances that the teams are going to take that money and give it to anyone else."