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Upshaw helped and hindered

Gene Upshaw was a great NFL player who made an even bigger impact on the game after turning in his helmet, becoming one of the most influential figures in professional sports.

The NFL Players Association's longtime executive director, who died Wednesday from pancreatic cancer at 63, leaves behind a legacy that includes two decades of uninterrupted labor peace and unprecedented riches for the union's dues-paying members.

And the depressing thing is, he could have accomplished so much more.

I'm saddened by Upshaw's sudden death three days after being diagnosed with the horrible disease, and I respect the ferocity and conviction that helped him achieve so much on and off the field. But even as we mourn his passing, I believe those of us in the NFL community have a responsibility to be honest about his successes and failures.

It's a well-reported fact that, thanks partly to Upshaw's leadership, the NFL players currently collect nearly 60 percent of the league's gross revenues, a sum that has been estimated at $4.5 billion.

Yet it's also true that, under Upshaw, the NFLPA was almost obsessively concerned with bottom-line pursuit of dollars at the expense of improved working conditions, responsiveness to its membership and genuine concern for the well-being of retired players who paved the way for this golden era.

I'm not sure if I'm the sole journalist writing these things at this dark hour, but I'm not the only person who's thinking about them. Too many current and former players I respect, from Joe Montana to Vikings center Matt Birk, have complained in recent years that Upshaw was domineering, arrogant and consumed with self-interest.

Upshaw and his defenders always countered by doing the equivalent of pointing to the scoreboard – look at how prosperous we are, they'd say. But believe it or not, there is more to life than money for some players. Back in the early 1990s after decertifying and winning an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL, the union had almost unprecedented leverage in forging a new labor deal.

Yes, an environment was created in which many prominent players – and Upshaw, for that matter – got rich. But an opportunity was missed to address numerous other player-welfare issues. For example, fighting for a ban on AstroTurf, at least in outdoor stadiums, would have been a worthy and popular cause at the time.

Unrestricted free agency, even with exceptions such as the franchise tag, was a good thing for the rank and file. But many players I know would have placed an equal emphasis on pushing for guaranteed contracts.

The owners certainly would have resisted, claiming that football is such a violent sport that guaranteeing contracts is unfeasible, given the risk of injuries. If unable to win that battle, Upshaw and the union might have pressed for lifetime medical benefits, reasoning that the players needed at least some protection for the sport's inherent risks.

But, as we would later learn, worrying about the continued care of aging players wasn't the Upshaw way. He seemed concerned only with instant gratification, to the point where he was prepared to fight against the growing call for a cap on spiraling rookie contracts, and seemed downright disdainful when challenged by those who felt the NFLPA had turned its back on retired players with severe medical problems.

At issue was a dysfunctional disability system that awarded benefits to fewer than 1 percent of all men who ever had played in the league, far less than the nationwide average for all occupations of 8.7 percent. The retirement package was similarly scrutinized – a 2006 report alleged that an NFL player with 10 years of service who takes his pension at age 55 received $24,000 a year, while a major league baseball counterpart in the same situation got $105,000 annually.

When confronted with the growing complaints of retired players in 2005, Upshaw was dismissive. "The bottom line is I don't work for them," he said. "They don't hire me, and they can't fire me. They can complain about me all day long. They can have their opinion. But the active players have the vote. That's who pays my salary. They (the retirees) say they don't have anybody in the (bargaining) room. Well, they don't, and they never will. I'm the only one in that room. They're not in the bargaining unit. They don't even have a vote."

Given that everyone in the NFL is one play away from being a retired NFL player – and that the average career lasts a little longer than three years – you'd have thought Upshaw might have chosen his words more carefully. But this wasn't the only time he opened his mouth recklessly in the face of dissent.

Speaking of one of his most strident critics, fellow Hall of Fame guard Joe DeLamielleure, in May of 2007, Upshaw told the Philadelphia Daily News, "A guy like DeLamielleure says the things he said about me, you think I'm going to invite him to dinner? No. I'm going to break his … damn neck."

Simply put, the former Oakland great presided over the union like his onetime boss, Al Davis, runs the Raiders. He was ruthless, intolerant of dissent and all about the cult of him, with zero intention of ever relinquishing his power.

In 2006, Players Inc., the marketing and licensing arm of the NFLPA (which paid a portion of Upshaw's reported $5.7 million annual salary), announced it had hired sports marketing veteran Andrew Feffer as chief operating officer. "I had many applicants, and I picked him because I liked his energy and I liked his marketing skills and I liked what his references had to say about him," Upshaw said.

An agent forwarded the press release to me with the following message attached: "This is the problem. The executive director thinks he owns the association."

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Upshaw with Vincent in Arizona prior to Super Bowl XLII.
(US Presswire/Jason Parkhurst)

To the end, Upshaw seemed oblivious to the reality that he was an elected steward of membership. Looking ahead to a potential lockout in 2011, Upshaw already had announced that he would ignore the NFLPA's bylaws calling for the mandatory retirement of its officers at age 65 – even though Upshaw had been the one who put the rule into effect.

Upshaw, who would have hit the milestone in August 2010, said he wouldn't leave until the right successor was found. He acted as though the thought of navigating a period of potential labor strife without him in charge was unthinkable, something that would expose the union to harsh ramifications.

Around that time Upshaw kneecapped his presumed successor, former NFLPA player president Troy Vincent, and scoffed at the very notion that anyone who worked under him would be worthy of inheriting the big job.

In an infamous quote he emailed to Sports Business Journal last March, Upshaw took the term "Looking Out For No. 1" to an absurd level.

"There is only a No. 1 and there will not be a No. 2," he wrote. "Number 2 is always trying to become No. 1 and never wants to wait. They can always do it better, they are like backup (quarterbacks). There is a reason they are backups."

With an attitude like that, it's hard to imagine Upshaw, on his deathbed, believing that he was leaving the NFLPA in good hands. That's a shame because the obvious and brutal lesson is that nothing lasts forever and it all can be taken away from even the most powerful of us in an instant.

I like to think that, when all this shakes out, the union's new leadership will step up to the challenge – that if Upshaw were able to look down on his successors, he'd end up being pleasantly surprised.

Surely, Upshaw didn't see this tragedy coming, and of course he wouldn't have wanted it to play out this way. But things don't have to be as bleak for the NFLPA as he might have feared. With a little creativity and compassion, the people who succeed Upshaw can turn the union he considered his into an even greater organization.

TAKE IT TO THE ATM

From now until the end of time, Olympic officials will get their panties in a bunch over the most petty and inane rules known to mankind. … A reality show featuring a series of competitions between 49-year-old tennis tantrum titan John McEnroe and indignant Swedish wrestler Ara Abrahamian would be awesome television, especially if each man was deprived of food for 12 hours before the start of taping. … If Michael Phelps' image consultants are paying attention, the great swimmer's barber will soon be as unwelcome as his estranged father .

LIES, LIES, LIES

1. Nothing says "We're hip and relevant" like Hank Williams Jr.'s incomprehensibly continuing presence at the top of “Monday Night Football.”

2. Distraught over the abrupt departure of his BFF, Jets wideout Laveranues Coles will have Chad Pennington's face tattooed on his torso before the team's regular season opener in Miami.

3. Niners GM Scot McCloughan is thrilled with coach Mike Nolan's deft handling of the team's quarterback competition.

OXYGEN-DEPRIVED THOUGHT FROM ABOVE

Chad Johnson's insistence that he could beat Phelps in swimming is one of the more preposterous things that has ever been said, even by the future Mr. Ocho Cinco. But if Usain Bolt spent the next four years grinding it out in the pool? Tell me you wouldn't want to see that in London. And while we're talking about Bolt, given Jacques Rogge's criticism of the Jamaican sprinter for being overly exuberant in victory, I wonder whether the IOC president was similarly appalled after watching Kerri Walsh and Misty May-Treanor celebrate their gold medal in women's beach volleyball?

LET'S DO SOME DON JULIO SILVER SHOTS FOR …

Japan's softball team, which in defeating the mighty U.S. for the gold medal Thursday, 3-1, may have done its sport a huge solid in the process. Though it pained us to see the U.S. team lose – especially the lovely and self-assured ex-Cal star Vicky Galindo, whose pinch single to lead off the seventh inning gave the Americans a final shred of hope – the blow to U.S. dominance may help convince IOC officials to reinstate the sport for the 2016 games. I'm also throwing one down for coach Pia Sundhage and the U.S. soccer team, which, as predicted, fought back from a 2-0 defeat in its opening game to capture its second consecutive gold medal, thanks to Thursday's 1-0 triumph over the sickeningly talented Brazilians.

THIS WEEK'S PROOF THAT CAL IS THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE

With 45 athletes and coaches representing the world's greatest academic institution at the Beijing Games, the Golden Bears are making a major impact. Three more silver medals on Thursday (Galindo for softball and Heather Petri and Elsie Windes for women's water polo) brought Cal's total medal count to 16. If the university were its own nation – and some of us have long suspected it is – it would rank, as of Thursday night, 12th in the overall medal standings with 16, three behind the Ukraine and one ahead of the Netherlands and Canada. Back home, seventh-round draft pick Justin Forsett – a 5-8 bundle of heart and relentlessness – took a big step toward making the Seattle Seahawks' roster, piling up 261 all-purpose yards (including 136 rushing yards on 15 carries) – in a 29-26 preseason victory over the Chicago Bears last Saturday night at Qwest Field. Oh, and by the way, Thursday was a glorious day in Berkeley.

YAHOO! SEARCH WORDS OF THE WEEK

Trojans little problem

LYRIC-ALTERED SONG DEDICATION OF THE WEEK

Like a star-crossed lover who can't help himself, Bengals owner Mike Brown reversed course and welcomed wideout Chris Henry – who once got arrested while wearing his own jersey – back into the fold earlier this week. Here's our sendup of Brown wailing the blues, Janis Joplin-style, to the tune of the timeless Jerry Ragovoy and Bert Berns composition "Piece of My Heart" (with Marvin Lewis and Carson Palmer doing the Big Brother background vocal thing):

Oh, come back, come back, come back, come back!

Didn't I make you feel like you were the only man?
Well yeah, an' didn't I give you nearly every chance that an owner possibly can?
Henry, you know I did!
And each time I tell myself that I, well I think I've had enough,
But I'm gonna show you, baby, that a cheapskate can be tough

I want you to come back, come back, come back, come back and take it!
Take another little piece of my dignity man (Oh, oh, break it!)
Break another little promise to clean up my team (Oh, oh, have a!)
Have another 20 drinks and throw up with Odell
You know I'm for it if it makes you feel good
Oh yes indeed

You were out on the streets looking for work, and Henry,
Deep down in your heart I guess you knew I'd make it right
Never, never, never, never, never, never gonna turn out the light
Chris, and you know it's bright!
And each time I tell myself that I, well I can't stand the pain
But when Chad Johnson's shoulder pops, I'll sign you once again

I'll say come back, come back, come back, come back, yeah take it!
Take another two-year deal and mock me, Henry (Oh, oh, break it!)
Break another little bit of my credibility, yeah, (Oh, oh, have a!)
Have another little laugh at my expense, Henry
Well, you know you I'm for it, child if it makes you feel good

I need you to come back, come back, come back, come back and take it!
Take another little piece of my dignity man (Oh, oh, break it!)
Break another little promise to clean up my team, come on, now (Oh, oh, have a!)
Have another 20 drinks and throw up with Odell
You know I'm for it, whooooooaaaaaah

Take it!
Take another two-year deal and mock me, Henry (Oh, oh, break it!)
Break another little bit of my credibility, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah (Oh, oh, have a!)
Have another little laugh at my expense, Henry
You know I'm for it, child if it makes you feel good