As an avid follower of all things sports since 1984 (and increasingly, the business/litigation aspect since 1997), Gene Upshaw was one of the most powerful men in the United States. Think about it. You’re the boss of a union (later, the Players’ Association, after the de-certification of the union in 1989) that paved the way for players to make over $4 billion in salaries in 2008, you made it possible for the players to earn a 60% stake in the revenues generated by the NFL and most importantly, you made it such that players can willingly change teams via free agency — whereas they could not prior to 1993.
Free agency is commonplace now in all sports, but the NFL was one of the last major leagues to “catch on”, as it were. Before the 1993 season, you were expected to report to the team that drafted you, and if you made the team, you stayed with that team until your career was over — unless the team traded you.
Players’ salaries were roughly what administrative assistants’ salaries were in the 1970s. Naturally, they were not living the lifestyles that players live now with huge signing bonuses, so they can flash their “mooga” in the public eye and “make it rain” at the club before going back to their 30,000 sq. ft. mansions in their Lamborghini Gallardoes and Bentley coupes. No, those players from the 50s, 60s and 70s had to work side jobs in the offseason — an offseason that was much longer than the current (as the AFL and NFL played 14 games until the late 1970s, when the schedule increased to 16 games and later added two more preseason games to have a total of 4 and sometimes 5). Many of those players are now in their 50s, 60s and entering their 70s. Some of them have debilitating injuries and illnesses (John Mackey, Jack Tatum, Conrad Dobler, Earl Campbell — and the list is much longer). Given the fact that salaries were dramatically less during the time that these guys played, they are currently unable to pay their steeping medical fees. This was a major point of contention between the retired players and the Upshaw-led National Football League Players’ Association until Upshaw’s sudden passing.
Regardless of this fact, and whatever rift the veteran players who are in their 30s (and are at risk for losing their jobs to incoming rookies making $35-50 million in guaranteed money before playing a down in the NFL) Upshaw ushered the NFLPA into the 21st century with maverick negotiations with the NFL’s owners and the NFL commissioner (first Pete Rozelle until shortly before his resignation in 1989, then Paul Tagliabue from 1990-2006 and currently Roger Goodell 2006-present). These negotiations enabled the NFL to become the biggest spectator sport and the most popular of the major league sports in North America. Additionally, the players’ salaries skyrocketed to unforeseen levels in the 15 years since free agency began. Along with the aforementioned revenue sharing that the players command and it is easy to see why Gene Upshaw was literally and figuratively a “Big Man” in the NFL and the US as a whole.
RIP Gene — (1945-2008)
P.S. Upshaw had been in talks to avoid bringing the salary cap back after the current NFL/NFLPA deal expired in 2010. Without the cap, players’ salaries would be limitless and almost certainly, the teams that play in major markets and have the most revenue (Dallas, New York Giants, New England, Washington) will be able to invariably snatch up the biggest name players on the market and set the league back two decades — as the smaller market teams will not be able to compete. This occurred in Major League Baseball and still does occur to this day. However, smaller market teams such as the Tampa Bay Rays, Milwaukee Brewers and Minnesota Twins are either leading their respective divisions, near the top or leading their Wild Card standings in the leagues they represent. Let’s hope that small market teams (i.e. Green Bay, which is one of the legendary teams in NFL history, playing in a city of 102,000 people) never get the short end of the stick in the NFL again. Let’s HOPE the next NFLPA Executive Director continues Gene’s work.