Commentary

Loss of Upshaw will delay labor negotiations

The NFLPA, reeling from the unexpected death of Gene Upshaw, will move slowly on finding a replacement for him and starting talks on a new labor contract, John Clayton writes.

Originally Published: August 21, 2008
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Gene UpshawJim McIsaac/Getty ImagesThe NFLPA and the league will hold several tributes to the memory of Gene Upshaw in the coming weeks.
Aside from being a Hall of Fame offensive lineman for the Raiders and one of sports' greatest union leaders, Gene Upshaw was a tireless worker. Until he started feeling ill over the weekend, he was working on an NFL Players Association case last week, not knowing he was suffering from the pancreatic cancer that took his life Wednesday at the age of 63. His sudden passing leaves many questions for the NFLPA:

Q: What happens next?

A: The NFLPA would like to move slowly and try to remember what Gene Upshaw has meant to the sport. Basically, the union will go into a period of mourning for a stoic figure who used his leadership and business savvy to put the NFLPA in position to collect 60 percent of ownership revenues. For the next month or so, the union and the NFL will hold numerous tributes to Upshaw. Expect a tribute such as a patch to be worn on all uniforms. Negotiations with the NFL owners on a collective bargaining agreement will be delayed temporarily. There will be a push to delay some of the upcoming trials and grievances in which the NFLPA is involved. This is a tough time because Upshaw's death was so sudden and no plan was in place for a successor. It's going to take more than a month for the union to come out of its mourning period and move forward. Upshaw was involved in every aspect of NFLPA business.

Q: After the mourning period, what will the NFLPA do for leadership?

A: The NFLPA executive committee has named NFLPA general counsel Richard Berthelsen as the interim executive director, according to a source on the committee. Berthelsen is the union's general legal counsel but, more important, he has worked for former executive director Ed Garvey and Upshaw for more than three decades. He has been involved in every aspect of labor negotiations and legal planning for the longest time. He's the most qualified for the interim position. In the meantime, the executive committee -- at an appropriate time -- will hire a firm to begin the process of finding a long-term successor.

Q: Who would be the leading candidates to replace Upshaw?

A: Former NFLPA president Trace Armstrong will be among the leading candidates. Former Vikings running back Robert Smith will be a candidate. Berthelsen will be under consideration and so will legal counsel Jeffrey Kessler. Troy Vincent, the former NFLPA president, will be under consideration. It's possible the firm could look at current union president Kevin Mawae. One thing will be clear. Over the next season, the union will proceed cautiously in memory of Upshaw. Anyone challenging Upshaw's legacy will lose support. Though Upshaw had his critics, he clearly has been one of the sport's five most influential figures over the past three decades. He caused labor turmoil that led to great benefits for the union, and he presided over labor peace for close to two decades,

Q: What happens to labor negotiations as the league heads to an uncapped year in 2010?

A: The plan was to start talks in September, but the loss of Upshaw virtually assures nothing will happen this year. The first couple of months would have been posturing anyway. Serious talks wouldn't have begun until January or February. What that means is the 2009 season will be the last capped season under the current CBA, which will cause teams several problems. The cap will go from $116 million to $123 million next season, but having no cap in 2010 will force teams to take all cap hits in 2009 with no chance of pushing those hits into the future. Contracts for rookies and veterans also will be tougher to complete with no cap in 2010 and no CBA in 2011. Owners and players have until March 2010 to preserve the salary cap, and odds favor some kind of a deal in early 2010.

Q: How will the loss of Upshaw affect those talks?

A: In his mind, Upshaw knew how to finesse a new deal. He knew revenues were going to $10 billion in the league, and he had a history of making the type of trade-offs that would be necessary to get a new extension. The owners will have a tougher time dealing with his successor. Upshaw had a great feel for the owners because he has been an advocate and a partner of theirs for three decades.

Q: Will be there be a fight at some point over a successor?

A: More than likely, but the opponents of Upshaw will have to proceed lightly. Ravens kicker Matt Stover led a move to push for a succession plan that didn't go over well with several members of the union board and Upshaw. That push was quieted by the start of camp. Those who held back the battles did so with the understanding a new fight will start when the union meets next March in Hawaii. To get a good deal with the owners, the union has to show solidarity. If that doesn't happen because of internal fighting, it may be hard for the union to get a good deal or it could lead to a possible lockout in 2011.

John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer