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08/27/2006: "IN DEFENSE OF GENE UPSHAW..Written By Robert Bonnette"

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Written by Robert Bonnette
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Thereís been a big uproar over the last week regarding Bryant Gumbelís comments about Gene Upshaw, head of the NFL Playerís Association. Basically calling Upshaw the lapdog of the NFL Commissioner, Gumbel suggested that he was the worst of all the union heads out there. Was he correct to tear down gene Upshaw like he did? It appears not.


Word is that several of the owners walked away from the most recent collective bargaining agreement feeling as if the players had gotten too much and Upshaw had pulled one over on Tagliabue. Itís hard to look at that, along with the fact that all NFL players are making far higher salaries than they did when Upshaw took over as head of the players association, and call Upshaw a lapdog for the commissioner. History, however, tells a different story. During most of his tenure, the owners have repeatedly gotten the better of the players at the bargaining table. There were two player strikes, and both ended with the players coming back with their tails between their legs. The 1987 strike was especially embarrassing; the owners, realizing that fans root for the uniform first and the man inside second, went with replacements players for four games and enjoyed enough success at the box office that it removed any fear about any future labor disputes. Five years before that there was a strike that ate up seven weeks of the season. The players lost out then as well.

Things didnít really start to turn around until Tagliabue became commissioner. The was a big fight over free agency that was settled by a federal judge in 1992, allowing NFL players to practice true free agency for the first time in league history. From that moment on, salaries have climbed significantly, and the league has made more money than ever. Contracts totaling $50 million are not uncommon, and signing bonuses topping $10 million are the norm for top of the line players. Still, many people consider the NFL union to be the weakest of the four major team sports. Their biggest piece of evidence is that Upshaw doesnít have a contentious relationship with the NFL owners, which supposedly means that he isnít fighting hard enough for his players. This is nonsense. Since when did behaving like Democrats and Republicans on a political talk show make for good labor relations talks? Since when did Donald Fehr, head of the baseball union, talking about the owners as if they are evil incarnate become a good negotiating strategy? This approach has a work stoppage threatened every few years and has contributed to the steroid problem (thanks to Fehrís stonewalling of any request by the owners for steroid testing) every bit as much as BALCO did.

The other sticking point for Upshawís critics is the lack of guaranteed contracts for NFL players. The argument here is that NFL players donít get guaranteed contracts like their brethren in the NBA, MLB, and NHL because Upshaw is too weak to demand them at the bargaining table and not savvy enough to win them. This is more nonsense. As has been astutely pointed out by Jason Whitlock and others, the NFL canít go to guaranteed contracts. Who in their right mind would give a seven year guaranteed contract to a player who may suffer a career ending injury the first time he suits up his new team? Football is the only team sport where this can happen; there is entirely too much risk involved to give out guaranteed long term deals. With 53 man rosters and constant injuries, you must be able to get rid of players without remaining on the hook for several years of salary. All the other sports have significantly smaller rosters and significantly fewer career ending injuries. Imagine if the Broncos had given Terrell Davis a seven year guaranteed deal after his 2,000 yard season in 1998; theyíd have just finished paying him last year, and Davis hasnĎt played since 2001. Now imagine having twenty guys like that on your team for the next five years; what owner would agree to that? Or what if Peerless Price had signed a seven year guarantee to leave Buffalo for Atlanta, where he got released after two years because he got exposed as the secondary player he really is and not the star they paid him to be? The Falcons would be stuck paying him for the next four seasons, even though he was gone from the team a year ago.

And are the other sports really better off for having guaranteed contracts? How does it help the NBA when Nene Hilario, a mediocre player coming off a knee injury which cost him a whole season, can get a guaranteed $60 million dollar contract? Or when a guy whoís had major problems on or off the court gets to stick around while the coaches and front office people whoíve tried to make things work with him get fired? And on the baseball side, just how much has A-Rodís $250 million contract helped the sport? Not much really. And what about Barry Bonds? Despite being in all kinds of legal trouble off the field and a first rate jerk on it, Bonds has never had to face the reality that most people in the world face, one where a failure to get along will find you unemployed very quickly. How has baseball benefited from that? The main things that guaranteed contracts bring are an inability by team management to rectify mistakes, and an inability by coaches to enjoy the kind of authority they need to get their jobs done right. Some guaranteed money is fine; the players should be able to count on something in return for the punishment their bodies take, but seven year guarantees for guys who often wonít be as good in year number five as they are in year one or two, or may not be as good as advertised period? If you really think thatís a good idea, Iíve got some oceanfront property in Nebraska to sell you.

A lot of sports talk radio hosts have filled up a lot of air time bashing Gene Upshaw while praising Donald Fehr and barely mentioning Billy Hunter, head if the NBA playerís union, largely because of the guaranteed contract issue and the lack of real heat between Upshaw and the owners. But what they fail to realize is that picking fights doesnít make you a good negotiator, unless youíre a character in an action movie. All three have overseen massive salary increases over the last 15 years, but only Upshaw has managed to avoid going through any more labor stoppages in the process. And arenít the most important things for a union boss supposed to be keeping his guys employed AND helping them get more money? Upshaw has managed to do both while Fehr and Hunter have not. And furthermore, both Fehr and Hunter have seen their constituents take tremendous PR hits and done little to help. Baseball players have become synonymous with cheating thanks to all the steroids and BALCO, while basketball players are widely considered to be as likely to appear in a police lineup as their own teamís starting lineup. Isnít making sure your clients look as clean as possible in the public eye when compared to their employers important, too? Despite a rap sheet of off the field transgressions as long as their contemporaries in baseball and basketball, football players arenít looked upon with the same amount of loathing by the public. No one thinks that theyíre saints, donít get me wrong, but that urge to not want to watch them perform hasnít come around with football players the way it has with the other two groups. If you think thatís irrelevant, then take notice of the fact that NFLís revenue hasnít gone down in a long time, while baseball and basketball either have had to deal with or still are dealing with downturns in revenue for various reasons.

So what are we really looking at here? Upshaw has been criticized in pretty demeaning terms by Bryant Gumbel, who was merely repeating whatís been said by many other members of the media over the years. And when we look at the truth, it seems to me like Upshawís critics are dead wrong on both of their main gripes with him. Of course, you wonít be hearing much about that now. Most of the focus has been on Gumbel and whether or not the NFL Network would be justified in firing him before he even gets started there. And while thatís a very provocative topic, the subject of Gumbelís diatribe is far more worthy of discussion here. Upshaw is considered by many to be incompetent because he doesnít hate the people he has to negotiate with and his players donít have something that theyíre never going to get anyway. What kind of twisted logic is that? Of course, thatís the world of sports talk radio where up is often down and down is sideways. All I know is that if my union boss kept me working while helping to foster an environment where my salary could increase significantly without me having to go on strike or double my work schedule, Iíd be ready to name that guy president for life, not mouth off about how much he sucks. Iím guessing a lot of you would do the same thing, which simply means weíre logical people, not idiots. Think about that the next time some schmuck on the radio starts ripping Gene Upshaw.