Commentary

CBA extension latest accomplishment for Upshaw

From his Hall of Fame days as a player to 23 years leading the NFLPA, Gene Upshaw has put together a pretty impressive résumé.

Updated: August 21, 2008, 9:41 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

Editor's Note: ESPN.com senior writer Greg Garber profiled Gene Upshaw in March, 2006. Upshaw died on Thursday at the age of 63. The following is Garber's 2006 story as it ran then:

The mood of the conference call was charged, approaching angry. On a day in early March, with 13 years of labor peace on the verge of evaporating into anarchy, the executive committee of the National Football League Management Council vented.

"Let's call his bluff," said one owner, referring to Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Association. "He'll have a revolt on his hands."

Historically, hardball had been a reasonable strategy. The NFL's 32 owners, all of them multimillionaires, many of them billionaires, are among the nation's most powerful businessmen.

Paul Tagliabue, the NFL commissioner who had sat at the bargaining table for two previous years, knew better. He had come to sense a change in the chemistry between the league and its players' union. It all stemmed from the passion of a single man.

"You don't know this guy," Tagliabue interjected wearily. "He's serious."

Upshaw, 60, was quietly convinced he held the hammer this time. In 23 years as the NFLPA's chief, he had weathered far worse than this: the debilitating strike of 1987, the decertification of the union two years later -- a time when he often didn't cash his paychecks because he knew they would bounce -- and a bitter and protracted legal battle that eventually brought the players free agency in 1993.

If that's what they say, I will say this: I'd want him to represent my side in labor negotiations. The players should be thanking him. Actually, they should be genuflecting.
Robert Kraft, Patriots owner on questions about Upshaw's leadership

Chronically overlooked and universally underestimated, Upshaw was making immense demands: a 60 percent slice of the nearly $6 billion pie and, not less significant, a fundamental change in the NFL's wildly successful business model.

Upshaw did not blink. In fact, by nearly all accounts, on March he won a watershed labor victory for his players, for himself and, more important, for the NFL. At Upshaw's insistence, high-revenue teams such as the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys now will help subsidize teams such as the Arizona Cardinals and Minnesota Vikings at the lower end of the spectrum as part of the six-year collective bargaining agreement extension. After more than 300 hours of intense, head-to-head negotiations, America's sports fans have another six seasons of uninterrupted football service.

Because of one man.

It is a measure of that man that Upshaw is among the names circulating for the commissioner's job to be vacated by Tagliabue, his longtime adversary, in July.

John Madden, whose 12-year tenure on the Raiders' coaching staff (1967-78) began and ended with Upshaw on the roster, saw it coming.

Gene Upshaw
Malcolm Emmons/US PresswireGene Upshaw played his entire 15-year career with the Raiders.
"You just knew Gene Upshaw was eventually going to go on to something great," Madden said recently from his Bay Area office. "We'd take trips to our capital at Sacramento and I'd watch him moving among those politicians and just marvel. Sometimes, sort of half-kidding, half-serious, I used to call him 'Governor,' because that's what I always guessed he'd be."

Instead, his working address -- L Street in Washington, D.C. -- is almost 3,000 miles away, just a seven-block walk from the White House, a seat of power and symbol of leadership.

New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft is aware that Upshaw's reputation for leadership, before the recent negotiation, had been questioned.

"If that's what they say, I will say this: I'd want him to represent my side in labor negotiations," Kraft said. "The players should be thanking him. Actually, they should be genuflecting."

Harold Henderson, chairman of the NFL Management Council, said a lot of people underestimated Upshaw's resolve on the issue of revenue sharing.

"He knows how to set his sights on his goal and pursue it -- relentlessly," Henderson said earlier this month. "He wanted a bigger piece of the pie for the players. Some of us took the position that revenue sharing might be good for league but it's none of your business. You know, 'You just go ahead and make a labor deal.'

"I think some people thought he was arguing but not really committed to the principle. Suddenly, it started to dawn on people that the guy really means it. Over time, he spoke with more and more owners.

"In the end, they were believers."

A homegrown fire

In the searing heat of Robstown, Texas, just west of Corpus Christi and about a two-hour drive from the Mexican border, the 7-year-old African-American hunches over and cracks open the stubborn, prickly cotton bolls and stuffs the wispy white fluffs into the bag on his back. The five quarters for each 100-pound bag he fills with bleeding hands will go toward buying school clothes. It takes a lot of cotton to fill that burlap bag, but the boy has learned to start early and work harder in the relative cool of the morning; the dew for the first few hours leaves the cotton marginally heavier.

It is a sepia-tinged scene from the middle of the 19th century, but this 7-year-old -- Eugene Thurman Upshaw Jr. -- is a child of the still-segregated South more than a century later, in the 1950s.

There were many places the oldest of three brothers knew he couldn't go, rules he was forced to follow. Restrooms and water fountains were either for whites or colored folks. Upshaw could go to the movie theater on Saturday only, and even then he had to sit in the balcony. In the restaurant where his parents, Gene Sr. and Cora, sometimes worked, he could enter only through the kitchen.

"You're talking about a football fight versus a fight for the seat on the bus," said Buffalo Bills cornerback Troy Vincent, the NFLPA president. "There's no comparison. People were dying in the era where you were fighting for rights, fighting for a voice. But I do think his enthusiasm, the fire in his heart, was homegrown."

"My value system was in place right then," Upshaw said. "Segregation wasn't one of those things that was discussed. Life was laid out in front of you. I found the world as it was in the '50s and saw it change. The value system that was there allowed me to see the change and how I could further impact that change."

His mother insisted on education and church, not necessarily in that order. His father served on the city council and ran for mayor. Sometimes, their lessons were delivered in the form of a hand to the backside. Doug Allen, the union's assistant executive director, attended the funerals of both of Upshaw's parents in Robstown.

"I saw where he grew up," Allen said. "Part of the reason he's been successful is his parents and his family background. It enabled him to get through the segregated South with a positive rather than cynical view of what can be accomplished, what changes are possible.

"Gene is an interesting combination of hardheaded realist and idealist. He is much more interested in progress than rhetoric."

Football was not a factor when Upshaw enrolled at the Texas College of Arts and Industries a few dozen miles down the road in Kingsville. He had to hitchhike to get there, fortified only by the $75 his father had given him. Upshaw played one year of high school football but, at 6-foot-5 and a shade under 200 pounds, wasn't built for the punishing game. But by the end of 1963, his freshman year, Upshaw had gained nearly 60 pounds and a scholarship. He would play center, tackle and end for Texas A&I and earn NAIA All-America honors. He also joined Alpha Phi Alpha, the oldest intercollegiate fraternity established for African-Americans.

When the Oakland Raiders of the American Football League considered their options in the 1967 college draft, their judgment was obscured by a single player: Buck Buchanan of the Kansas City Chiefs. He was a massive 6-7 defensive tackle, and he was unstoppable. Upshaw was drafted in the first round for the express purpose of blocking Buchanan.

Tom Condon was a rookie offensive guard for the Chiefs in 1974.

"Gene was a great matchup for Buck Buchanan," said Condon, who now serves as Upshaw's agent. "It was very rare for a big man to get out and run like he did. The Raiders would run that weak-side lead, led by Art Shell and Gene Upshaw. And they'd continue to run because we couldn't stop it."

"He was one of those guys who could do everything, pass protection as well as run-blocking," said Madden, who joined the Raiders in 1967 as linebackers coach and was head coach from 1969 to 1978. "Very few guys are good in the trenches and out on the perimeter. Versatility -- that's what he had then, and that's what he has now, after football."

Gene Upshaw
Malcolm Emmons/US PresswireGene Upshaw celebrates the Raiders' victory over the Vikings in Super Bowl XI. It was the Raiders' first Super Bowl title.
Upshaw played in 10 league championship games and seven Pro Bowls and is the only player in history to appear in three Super Bowls with the same team in three different decades. He was named to the NFL's 75-year anniversary team and enshrined as the first pure offensive guard in the history of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

There would be another first, too, another place others previously had been forbidden to go. Upshaw would become the first African-American to lead a major players' union. It was Al Davis, the iconoclastic Raiders owner, who helped make it happen.

After 307 games, Upshaw spent the 1982 season on injured reserve. In a San Francisco restaurant before the 1983 season, Upshaw discussed his prospects with Davis. Davis encouraged him to leave football and pursue the union's top job. Upshaw was prepared. He had been increasingly involved in the Democratic Party and been drawn to California politicians such as Jerry Brown and Ron Dellums.

It was Condon, an NFLPA executive committee member, who nominated Upshaw as the executive director to follow Ed Garvey. He was elected unanimously.

"There was never any question because he embodied all the things you'd admire in a man," Condon said. "Great integrity, extraordinary intelligence, great judgment, and he had an unbending will."

A will forged in the heat of race conflict in the segregated South.

"I'm sure there is [a connection]," Condon said. "You see the final result.

"We'd be on Capitol Hill having meetings with congressmen and senators, and he'd be completely at ease. He was a charismatic character, but he never forgot the everyday people. He would always stop and talk to the doorman. At player rep meetings, he would say hello to all the waiters and walk into the kitchen and talk to the cooks like he was the owner."

Bloodied, but not obliterated

Seeking to alter the NFL's limited system of free agency and demanding 55 percent of their teams' revenues, the league's players went on strike in 1982. They returned 57 days later after agreeing to a collective bargaining agreement that did little to improve the free agency system from the players' perspective.

Allen, who had joined the union that same year, was in the center of that struggle.

"What kind of shape was the union in after the strike?" he said, laughing. "We hadn't been obliterated in negotiations, but we had been bloodied. Hey, if you could get up in the morning and the building was still standing, well, you had won."

The union, which had an annual operating budget of a little more than $3.5 million, was $4 million in debt. There was a sizable loan from the AFL-CIO to keep things afloat, plus staff layoffs. Upshaw, who had agreed to an annual salary of $85,000, drew only $35,000 his first few years. He had $150,000 in severance from the Raiders in the bank, and that was more than most folks in the union office had.

"I'm looking at the books every day and seeing the amount of debt," Upshaw explained. "It was more important for them than it was for me. Originally, I only agreed to a six-month term, but it became obvious that I had to stay. I knew what had to be done."

1987 NFL Strike
Mike Powell/Getty ImagesMembers of the Los Angeles Raiders sit on the curb in a picket line during the 1987 strike.
The only real leverage the players had was withholding their services, and they went back out on strike in 1987. Five years earlier, when the average player's salary was $120,000, it was a lot easier to keep membership unified. In 1987, with the average up to $244,000, the players were less committed. The owners countered by fielding teams of replacement players who were joined by 15 percent of the union players. Frustrated, the player representatives voted to end the strike, and after 24 days, the players returned, utterly defeated.

"It was really an important, watershed moment in our history because we finally came to grips with how important it was to fight for free agency," Allen said. "Gene was the best at his position, yet he didn't have a choice where he played. When everybody has a choice, they get treated differently.

"The most important thing was, we drew a line in the sand. The owners overreached and tried to get us to take a bad deal. We said no, and we lived to fight another day."

After the strike, Upshaw was the target of a yearlong investigation by the Department of Labor and the Internal Revenue Service after charges that he stole money from the players.

"The facts are, he got an advance that he didn't realize he'd gotten," Allen said. "It was an accounting error, and it was corrected two weeks later. The Reagan Labor Department took a good hard run at him, but they didn't have a case."

Said Upshaw, "I wasn't worried. I knew I was not guilty."

Eventually, the charges were dropped.

In the wake of the unsuccessful strike, the union filed suit against the NFL, claiming that labor law and collective bargaining, as conducted by the league, weren't working for the benefit of its players. In 1988, a judicial determination supported the union's position and, as a result, the NFL instituted the limited Plan B system of free agency in 1989.

But later in 1989, the lower court's decision in the suit -- Powell vs. the NFL -- was reversed by a federal appeals court, which ruled that antitrust laws could not apply because the NFLPA was a labor union. Upshaw was in Albany, making a speech at a drug awareness seminar, when he received the news via telephone from general counsel Richard Berthelsen.

"We're going to decertify," Upshaw said after only a few seconds. "Let's go."

"It was the only alternative we had," Upshaw explains today. "The union is in place to protect the players, not the owners. If the union isn't doing its job, it shouldn't be there."

Dismantling the union is now seen through the lens of history as one of the boldest strokes ever by a labor leader.

"It was a roll of the dice, an all-or-nothing bet," Allen said. "The interesting thing? The harder it gets, the simpler it gets. We had two choices: surrender or fight. As a staff, we were betting not just our jobs but our careers, Gene most of all."

With no union dues coming in, there was a negligible cash flow. The non-union was not able to engage in collective bargaining, but it was free to pursue its legal battles. Its only major source of income: group licensing money the union had fought for that amounted to millions and helped pay for the lawyers. In labor relations, capital equals leverage, and this incoming cash was just enough to sustain the effort.

Meanwhile, the NFL was thought to be behind an effort by Hall of Fame fullback Larry Csonka to re-unionize the players. This forced the remnants of the NFLPA to become an anti-union, lobbying the players, fighting for survival. Somehow, Upshaw held things together.

As the players' litigation began to wind through the court system, the dynamic at the top of the NFL changed. Pete Rozelle, the commissioner for 29 years, was succeeded in late 1989 by Tagliabue. Raiders owner Davis, a pariah in many NFL eyes, gave him some valuable advice.

"[It was] about how to change the relationship with the players' association and to make it less adversarial and less confrontational, and build a relationship of respect and trust," Tagliabue said recently in an NFL Network interview. "We've tried to do that over the years, Gene Upshaw and I, and the owners and the Players Association Executive Committee. He and I have always been on the same page when it comes to trying to make this system work fairly."

From 1987 to 1993, about 20 lawsuits were filed by the NFLPA against the NFL. The most important involved Jets running back Freeman McNeil, who -- with seven other players -- challenged the league's restrictions on free agency, and defensive end Reggie White, who was part of a class action suit.

In 1991, Judge David Doty ruled that the NFL was no longer exempt from antitrust laws after the NFLPA's decertification, spurring the league to consider a deal. In November 1992, the league and the union began bargaining in earnest. In January 1993, the two sides came to a resolution. Players would get unprecedented free agency and a percentage of gross revenues; owners would get a salary cap.

Upshaw had led a group of 1,500 players, of whom approximately three-quarters were black, and successfully challenged a group of 28 millionaire owners, all of whom were white.

"Until we achieved free agency, I always viewed the NFL as the last plantation," Upshaw said. "The players need to have their freedom. I knew that once they got that, they'd get everything else.

"It was after all that I'd been through growing up that I was able to see that."

A stake in all profits

Ben Benson's, on West 52nd Street in Manhattan, is a classic New York steak house with polished wooden floors and lots of dark molding. Yankees pitcher David Wells celebrated his 1998 perfect game there with a double porterhouse.

When the recent negotiations between the NFLPA and the NFL broke off at 7 p.m. on Sunday, March 5, the union team left outside counsel Jeffrey Kessler's conference room on the 23rd floor and took the elevator down to Benson's. In their minds, 13 years of labor peace were over. Negotiations, which had deteriorated in the last several days despite a three-day extension of the deadline, had formally failed, and now their attention turned to dealing with the 2007 season that would have no salary cap.

With a small group that included Kessler, Allen and Berthelsen, Upshaw raised his glass of dryish pinot grigio and said, "Let's toast to the uncapped year."

Glasses and light beers clinked, and Upshaw, who had grown tired of eating sandwiches in conference rooms for the two previous years, set upon his New York strip steak, medium rare. It was a pleasant, uninterrupted two hours, for in that corner of Benson's, there was no cellular service. Upshaw was upbeat about the future, seemingly relieved that it was over.

The deal breaker had been revenue sharing among the league's 32 teams. For several years, Upshaw had been advocating that the teams that made more money help subsidize the teams that made less. The gap between such teams, in the case of No. 1 versus No. 32, amounted to more than $100 million.

The existing CBA called for the players to receive a percentage of the defined gross revenue, about 90 percent of all revenue, which excluded such things as concessions, parking, stadium clubs and luxury boxes. Upshaw, who had been told by the Raiders' Davis that the Denver Broncos' new stadium put him at a $40 million competitive disadvantage, pushed for a slightly lower percentage of all team revenues.

"I saw what was happening in baseball and hockey, and I could see our sport going in the same direction," Upshaw said. "The gulf between the high-revenue and low-revenue clubs was beginning to be so wide that with another negotiation, it might have been too late.

"I have always said, 'The only time this agreement will ever fall apart is if either side gets greedy.' And they were starting to get greedy."

The socialistic league, one that has shared its television revenues equally among larger- and smaller-market teams from the beginning of network telecasts, eventually came to agree on the concept, but the percentage -- Upshaw insisted on nothing less than 60 -- was the sticking point. The NFL was willing to offer only 56 percent.

"The key was his commitment to that revenue sharing issue," the Management Council's Henderson said. "People would say why should he even care, as long as players get cap money? He wanted all players to have a piece of all the money. That was his goal, and he never wavered."

"Paul Tagliabue had made it clear for a while that we were not going to be able to just extend the contract, that the time was about right for a change," Cardinals coach Dennis Green. "Right from the start, Gene was able to sell the commissioner on the contract, and then it was 'OK, this is where we're at now.'"

When the NFLPA negotiating team walked out of the New York steak house, Upshaw checked his BlackBerry and found a one-line e-mail from Roger Goodell, the NFL's chief operating officer: "Can you call Paul?"

"Gene," said Kessler, excited, "I think they're ready to fold."

They took the elevator back to Kessler's office, and Upshaw called Tagliabue. Here, according to Upshaw, is how the conversation went:

Tagliabue: "Gene, tell me, what will it take to move the [free agency] deadline?"
Upshaw: "Paul, I can't move the deadline."
Tagliabue: "Is there any way you'll consider moving the deadline?"
Upshaw: "Only under one circumstance: Take my proposal to Dallas for the owners, with no changes, and give it a yes or no vote. That's it."
Tagliabue: "I'll call you right back."

Fifteen minutes later, after conferring with the Management Council's executive committee, Tagliabue called and told Upshaw, "If you give us 72 hours, we'll do it."

So, Upshaw moved the deadline, and the momentum and the bargaining leverage swung to the side of the union.

Sparing the Golden Goose

Three days later in Grapevine, Texas, 25 minutes before that 72-hour deadline expired, the NFL announced a six-year CBA extension.

CBA Upside
The recent six-year extension of the NFL's Collective Bargaining Agreement clearly was about the money. The players are guaranteed 59.5 percent of all football revenues for 2006-2009 and 60 percent of all revenues for 2010-2011. The 2006 salary cap ($102 million to $104 million) is about 20 percent higher than the 2005 cap of $86 million.

But beyond the bottom-line numbers, there were a number of smaller, yet significant victories for the players:

• The third time a player is franchised by a team, the required tender will now be the average salary of the top five players at the position with the highest average salary or 120 percent above his applicable salary from the previous year, whichever is higher. If the player plays the position with the highest average salary, then the required tender for that player will be a 140 percent increase over his prior year's salary. Previously, all players received tenders based only on their position, and if a player was tendered multiple times the tender was a 120 percent increase over the prior salary.

• The franchise and transition tenders from the previous season are now included in computing the franchise and transition tenders for the current season. Previously, tenders from the prior season were not included.

• Transition tenders are now guaranteed.

• Maximum discipline by a team for a player's misconduct is now limited to a four-game suspension; the player cannot be deactivated in addition to the suspension. Previously, a player could be deactivated after the four-game suspension.

• Contracts signed by players chosen in the top half of the first round have a maximum of six years. Contracts signed by players in the bottom half of the first round have a maximum of five years. Contracts signed by all other drafted players have a maximum of four years. Previously, there were no such limits on any contracts.

• The first-year minimum salary is now $275,000, up from $230,000 in 2005. All other minimum salaries increase by $40,000.

• Health care benefits for retired players, preseason pay, postseason pay and per diems have increased.

-- Greg Garber

After a dizzying chain of events, the NFL's owners voted 30-2 to guarantee the players 59.5 percent of all football revenues from 2006 to 2009 and 60 percent in 2010 and '11. The salary cap of $102 million in 2006 represents an increase of 20 percent over the 2005 figure ($85.5 million).

Tagliabue also announced an incremental revenue-sharing plan that will cost high-revenue teams between $850 million and $900 million during the six-year agreement. The consensus of analysis: The NFL blinked.

"Who blinked?" asked Henderson of the Management Council. "We each moved to a midpoint, but then nobody was moving and it was getting late. Gene laid down the ultimatum: This is it. Paul had a duty to present it to the owners. To walk away, at that point, would have been irresponsible."

The official union position is that both sides won. Jeff Citron, a Toronto labor lawyer who represented the NHL Players Association in collective bargaining negotiations from 1995 to 2000, begs to differ.

"Upshaw and the players did a good job in establishing their petition early and sticking to it," Citron said. "Continually putting the focus on the parallel negotiation, the large-market versus small-market owners, was, in my mind, a brilliant thing to do.

"Upshaw played on the classic idea that uncertainty is bad for business. Once the owners realized it was such a fabulous business, nobody wanted to go down the road and kill the Golden Goose."

"In the end," Upshaw said, "I wasn't going to take a deal back to my players that I didn't believe in."

Ryan Kuehl, the Giants' long snapper and player representative, said the players were thrilled with the extension.

"Players like structure, rules to live by," he said from the union meetings in Hawaii. "Uncertainty breeds uncertainty. Look at history. A good CBA has benefits for both sides, whether it's U.S. Steel, the automotive industry or the NFL. This extension does that. We're all doing well. The rising tide lifts all boats."

Kraft, the Patriots owner whose franchise won three Super Bowls in four years and falls into the high-revenue category, looks at the deal with mixed emotions.

"From the point of view of the New England Patriots, looking at our isolated situation, this is a bad deal," Kraft said. "But looking at it in terms of putting our league hat on, it's right at the edge, maybe a little bit over in terms of a great deal for the union.

"Gene pushed it right to the limit, and he did a heck of a job. And those of us who care about what makes the league special found a way to man together clubs like ourselves and come up with a plan that took substantial dollars out of our pockets. Paul Tagliabue and Gene Upshaw have formed a unique partnership. It's a tribute to the two of them that they were able to do it."

And was there a moment in time when the NFL nearly called the union's bluff?

"Oh, absolutely," Kraft said. "There was enough of us, and maybe a time and place for that. They got right to the point where they were overreaching. If that does happen, if you go over the border, you're going to have to go through some more of those tough times."

According to union officials, those times might well have included another decertification.

"It was inevitable," the NFLPA's Berthelsen said. "In the current climate, the NFL would have locked the players out. It happened to the NBA twice, and you saw it in the NHL, too. It would have been the best strategy for the owners. The only way to defeat the attempt to lock out players would be to decertify. We were prepared to do it."

Throughout the past two years, Upshaw has been, according to those close to him, unnaturally calm.

"He played in three Super Bowls, and he's a Hall of Fame player," said Kessler, laughing at the image of Upshaw cowering in a negotiating session. "It takes a great deal to get Gene riled. He is always a bedrock, no matter what kind of waters are swirling around him."

Condon, who knows Upshaw better than nearly anyone in the football business, said the recent deal -- in terms of degree of difficulty -- paled in comparison with several of the others.

"You'd have to ignore the decertification and the six following years," Condon said. "The strike collapses and decertification, well, it kind of looks like desperation. And then you have to win the lawsuit, without dues? I don't know what could have been harder than that. This time, he looked like he was taking a stroll through the park."

"That's for other people to say," Upshaw said, sounding embarrassed. "I can't be anyone else but who I am."

Allen might have the best perspective on Upshaw's legacy.

"Once they stopped trying to put us out of business and approached the union as a partner," Allen said, "the league got stronger. It's really that simple."

Double standard?

Before the CBA deal, the widely held perception was that Upshaw was something of an accidental tourist; he was just along for the ride while slick lawyers such as Kessler, Berthelsen and Jim Quinn did all the important strategizing and legal maneuvering.

The Management Council's Henderson disagrees.

"Jeff is what Gene calls his lead dog; he gets out front and pushes ideas," Henderson said. "There are times in meetings when Gene says, 'No, that's not authorized. I'm not saying that.' Jeff is bright and quick and full of ideas -- sometimes a little bit of what he says is right. In the end, Gene makes his own calls."

Marvin Miller, the charismatic union boss for the Major League Baseball Players Association from 1966 to 1983, has been a constant critic. Last year, he told the Newark Star-Ledger, when it was still far from clear the union would prevail in negotiations, "Every league's union except the NFL's has chosen to hire professional leadership. The NFL Players Association hired a former player. You see the results."

A dozen years ago, it was fashionable to say the NFL's union wasn't as strong as major league baseball's. Now, it is no longer true. What about the big guaranteed contracts in baseball, basketball and hockey? In 2005, 50 percent of the money paid to NFL players was guaranteed -- a number that tends to surprise even those who follow the league closely. Upshaw, clearly, is far shrewder than most folks give him credit for.

Nevertheless, a longtime observer of NFL's labor battles offered this epithet after the CBA extension: "Unwittingly, the league did the impossible: It made Gene Upshaw look smart."

"Frankly, he encourages that kind of underestimation," Allen said. "He doesn't spend a lot of time promoting himself. I know he's turned down hundreds of interview opportunities. Sometimes we yell at him about that. He reminds us that he can communicate better with the players better in a locker room than in a magazine story."

Berthelsen has asked Upshaw numerous times whether he could respond to inaccuracies in stories, point by point. Upshaw always discouraged him, saying they had better things to do with their time.

"Because we achieved labor peace in football without massive disruptions to the sport," outside counsel Kessler said, "for some reason, people have made that a negative."

Upshaw believes some of the perceptions are fueled by the league's formidable image.

"When you're dealing with the NFL, so much is expected," he said. "They move around cities, senators -- even presidents if they have to -- but we're still the players."

"People see him too much as a Hall of Fame player, not as institutional leader," Allen added. "I mean, when they talk about African-American CEOs, I don't know too many more powerful and influential than he is."

Upshaw's color, Vincent insisted, has played a role in the criticism.

"You don't get much credit for being a man of color," said Vincent, whose offseason job is head of business development for Eltekon Securities in Trenton, N.J. "I can personally say that, because I'm a man of color. We always have to do an overabundance, say two or three times more than a non-color person. Gene and Paul are equals, but Tagliabue makes three times, almost four times what Gene does. Paul's salary isn't too high, Gene's [$2.85 million] is too low.

"Seventy-five percent of the league is African-American, and yet that's not translating into head coaching positions or ownership. Why is that? It's OK for us to score touchdowns and make big tackles and interceptions, but it's still not OK to lead your team as a quarterback."

"Unfortunately, there are still people who have racist feelings," Kessler said. "It's a sad, lingering part of our society. The reality is that Gene Upshaw and [NBA union chief] Billy Hunter don't always get the credit they deserve. They are effective, powerful leaders who have gotten extraordinary gains for their players."

Said Upshaw, "That's a factor, there's no doubt about it. You think about where this job has taken me and what I have to deal with. In so many meetings, seminars and negotiations, I'm the only black face in the room.

"People criticize me, saying, 'Now that he's had success, he's soft on the job. He used to be a radical, but now he's too close to Paul Tagliabue.' It's all just chatter. If we don't have a good relationship, we're not sitting here talking about the CBA."

"After all the turmoil, the strikes," said the Giants' Kuehl, "people see the labor peace and they say, 'Someone's gone soft.' I don't see it that way. Maybe the NFL and Paul Tagliabue and Gene Upshaw realized the importance of having a good relationship. Certain union heads, they go into the limelight more. Maybe they want conflict and friction so that guys will say, 'Hey, he's really fighting for us.'

"Gene's style is not that way."

Here are the facts, according to the NFLPA:

In the 23 years Upshaw has led the union, the average player's salary has risen from $120,000 to approximately $1.4 million in 2005. That's an increase of more than 1,000 percent. The total payroll for 2005 was a staggering $2.8 billion. Although the new deal's bottom-line numbers got most of the attention, players also won numerous benefits across the board.

Within a week of the CBA extension, running back Edgerrin James signed a four-year deal with the Cardinals worth $30 million, almost half of it guaranteed; center LeCharles Bentley got a six-year contract from the Browns worth $36 million, $12.5 million of it guaranteed; quarterback Drew Brees signed a six-year deal $60 million deal with the Saints, with a $10 million bonus up front.

Gene Upshaw
Kevin Terrell/WireImage.comGene Upshaw, pictured at last year's Super Bowl in Jacksonville, has led the NFLPA since 1983.
During Upshaw's tenure, the union has grown stronger with each battle. According to NFLPA officials, the union that once was broke now has $100 million in the bank and another $100 million in assets. There are more than 100 employees. Upshaw, after a recent contract extension in preparation for an uncapped year, is under contract through 2008. He has maintained for some time that this was his last CBA.

Toward the end of an hour-long interview last week, Upshaw grew philosophical.

"We decided on our message three years ago -- and we stayed on that message," he said, a hardness creeping into his easygoing baritone. "We told them, 'The more the deal drags on, the more educated the players will be, and it's going to be harder on you.'

"That was the last time they were going to see those numbers. The next time they were going to be a lot higher."

There was a pause and, after earnestly narrating the story of his life, Upshaw laughed into his cell phone. He patiently painted a striking, almost cinematic image: Upshaw, leaning back in a chaise lounge amid the swaying palm trees of Hawaii, wearing only a bathing suit by the sprawling pool at the Fairmont Kea Lani Maui hotel and enjoying the fruits of a lifetime of labor.

He had been working on his laptop, he said, but when the Washington office closed, he turned it off. He was contemplating dinner and whether to play golf the next day. After Tagliabue announced his resignation, Upshaw had heard from several players who asked, "You're not thinking about that, are you?"

Not surprisingly, Upshaw actually has given it some thought.

"I was asked a few years ago if I would be interested," Upshaw said. "The only way would be to change voting procedures from the three-fourths vote to a majority. It's so difficult to do that job. I don't consider myself a candidate, but if someone else does, that's fine."

For now, he will continue to average three to four days per week on the road; Upshaw's closing in on 2 million frequent-flier miles with United Airlines alone. His next project: attending the executive board meeting of the Arena Football League as that union's executive director. When Upshaw retires, the Bills' Vincent is seen as the leading contender to be his successor.

And when will that be? Will Upshaw and Tagliabue ride off into the sunset of golden parachutes together?

"I'm going to tell you what I told my [three] boys a few years ago," Upshaw said. "We have an age requirement in the union -- you have to leave at age 65. Well, I'm 60 years old, so between now and then, I'll decide.

"I will not be here past age 65. But, no, I'm not planning on leaving any time soon."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.