Gene Upshaw, the former Oakland Raiders G and current head of the NFL Players Association, has succumbed to pancreatic cancer at the age of 63. A 16 year NFL and AFL veteran, a two-time Super Bowl Champion and 6 time Pro Bowler with the Raiders, Upshaw became better known in recent years for his often controversial role as executive director of the players union.
Assuming the top position of the NFLPA in 1983, Upshaw presided over the union during the unsuccessful 1987 players strike, a work stoppage that not only resulted in the eventual capitulation on the part of the NFLPA, but also served as the inspiration for one of Keanu Reeves’ worst movies. In more recent years, Upshaw was described as the NFL’s lapdog, blasted by retired players for not addressing their health and/or financial concerns, and most unfortunately, was accused of threatening physical violence against one of his more vocal critics, former Bills lineman Joe DeLamielleure.
This morning on “SportsCenter”, Upshaw was eulogized by former Vikings RB Robert Smith as “someone who cared very much about the players”. While this might well be accurate, the NFLPA — despite representing the work force in what is arguably the most popular American professional sport — has a very different role in relation to ownership compared to that of baseball or basketball’s labor unions. While pro football’s stretch of labor peace is unprecedented, Upshaw’s legacy is also typified by the lack of guaranteed player contracts.