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Starting Thursday -- and perhaps not ending until September 2008 -- Gene Upshaw is the most powerful man in sports. Which makes him the most powerful black man in America since David Palmer won the presidential popular vote between seasons one and two of "24."
Seriously -- with the NFL and the NFL Players Association on the brink of failing to extend their collective bargaining agreement (the deadline strikes Thursday) -- Upshaw's power is unprecedented. As the president of the NFLPA, the former Oakland Raiders guard and Hall of Famer holds the key to the future of the most powerful sports entity and television force in the world.
Paul Tagliabue and 32 of the richest and most arrogant men in the world must bow to Upshaw's will over the next 30 months or face the possibility of a chaotic future come the 2008 season, when the league's total structure -- draft, free agency and everything else -- would come unglued without a new CBA.
Bow to Upshaw? Yes, Upshaw is negotiating from a superior position than Tagliabue, who has 32 highly attentive bosses with varying agendas. For example, Jerry Jones and Dan Snyder, with their seemingly limitless Cowboys and Redskins revenue streams, have far different concerns than Jacksonville's Wayne Weaver and Cincinnati's Brown family. Snyder's Skins pass out signing-bonus dollars and seven-figure assistant-coaching contracts with little thought because the Skins can generate significantly more non-revenue-sharing dollars than the Bengals and others. Therefore, Upshaw's demand of 60 percent of total revenue sounds different to Snyder than to Weaver.
While Tagliabue must build a consensus among a group of strong-willed businessmen, Upshaw need only please himself, a small group of lawyers retained by the NFLPA and IMG super agent Tom Condon, Upshaw's main confidant.
Upshaw's real bosses -- the 1,500 players he represents -- are in no way engaged in this process. Oh, the handful of big-name players who will be cut on what is being called "Bloody Thursday" will care about the CBA. In a last-ditch scare tactic, the league is making sure word gets out that Trevor Pryce and several other high-end veterans are getting whacked because of the failure to reach labor peace. But the majority of Upshaw's constituency has no idea what is going on right now. His base is in the middle of enjoying Bling Season, the time of the year between the end of the season and the beginning of mandatory-voluntary workouts, when playas sit courtside at NBA arenas and stage-side at America's strip clubs.
Getting cut in March only extends Bling Season for a savvy veteran, or family time with the wife/baby's mama and kids for a recently busted or henpecked vet.
If we learned anything from the NBA lockout, it's that players don't care to get involved in labor negotiations until the checks stop rolling in. If Trevor Pryce is unemployed come September, when the league starts cutting its paychecks, that's when he'll ask his agent who is running the union.
But Pryce won't be unemployed in September, and neither will any of the other valuable, big-name veterans who are let go this week. With the league staring at an uncapped 2007 season -- and the owners highly unlikely to force a lockout to prevent the 2007 season -- Upshaw in effect has 30 months before any of his players get real interested in the labor negotiations. A few players having to wait a year on free agency is a sacrifice even NFLPA members are willing to endure.
Upshaw is holding all the cards, and he knows it. With no stoppage of play in sight, he won't face the wrath of fans, gamblers or the media anytime soon, either. Most fans will find Bloody Thursday rather exciting. It took Kansas City football fans all of 30 seconds to start debating how the defensive tackle-starved Chiefs could land Pryce in free agency. Never mind the fact that Bloody Thursday might cost the Chiefs 13-year vet and future Hall of Famer Will Shields. Never mind that the lack of an extended CBA and new salary-cap structure would have the Chiefs and many other teams treading very, very lightly in free agency.
NFL fans have a "fantasy" mentality. The more big names that are on the market, the more NFL fans can play fantasy GM during the offseason and hold barroom debates on who they would sign. Fans have grown accustomed to their favorite players switching uniforms.
The other gigantic advantage Upshaw holds is that NFL agents are weaker than their baseball and basketball counterparts. In the NBA, what David Falk and Arn Tellem have to say is far more important than what NBAPA president Billy Hunter has to say. Falk has more clout with players he doesn't represent than Hunter has with his rank and file members. Hunter has to acquiesce to Falk and other agents' agendas. Hunter isn't the head of a players' association. He's the head of an agents' association.
Upshaw faces no such problem. Drew Rosenhaus, the agent with the biggest client base, is viewed as a clown more interested in mugging for ESPN cameras than creating a profile as a visionary. What credibility Rosenhaus had with the public and players he doesn't represent got tossed away in the Terrell Owens fiasco. David Dunn and a quirky personality chopped Leigh Steinberg's profile in half. The inspiration for "Jerry Maguire" would now inspire a sequel with a tragic ending.
Condon, the head of IMG, is the only agent with the intellect and credibility to usurp any of Upshaw's authority. But that won't happen. Condon, a former offensive guard with the Chiefs, is Upshaw's underboss. Upshaw's critics claim that Condon is Tony Soprano and Upshaw is Junior Soprano, meaning Upshaw carries the title but Condon wears the crown.
Whatever the case, Upshaw and Condon have a strong alliance, and the NFLPA is infiltrated with IMG-trained lawyers and lieutenants.
Bottom line: There are no legitimate threats to Upshaw's power, and there is no reason for him to rush a deal. He's overreaching by asking for 60 percent of total revenues, but you're supposed to overreach when you have the kind of leverage Upshaw holds.
Did we complain when David Stern overreached in his dealings with NBA players? No. We applauded. Stern had the hammer, and he used it.
I'm not going to hate on Upshaw now that he wields the hammer. I'll support Upshaw with the same level of enthusiasm I gave President David Palmer. Now, I'll do it from afar, because eventually Tom "Jack Bauer" Condon won't be able to save him from every assassination attempt.
Jason Whitlock is a regular columnist for The Kansas City Star. His newspaper is celebrating his 10 years as a columnist with the publishing of Jason's first book, "Love Him, Hate Him: 10 Years of Sports, Passion and Kansas City." It's a collection of Jason's most memorable, thought-provoking and funny columns over the past decade. You can purchase the book at TheKansasCityStore.com. Jason can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Sound off to Page 2 here.