The death Wednesday of NFL Players Association head Gene Upshaw comes at a time of uncertainty over the future of the union’s collective bargaining agreement with the league.
The NFL and its players have until March 2010 to negotiate a new deal or enter the following season without a salary cap for the first time since 1993. After that, the two sides face a potential work stoppage, a possibility made more daunting because of a lack of clarity over who will replace Upshaw, who had served as executive director of the union since 1983.
A statement from the union said Upshaw was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer Sunday, and the suddenness of his death highlights his refusal over the last few months to select a successor.
The union voted to have NFLPA general counsel Richard Berthelsen take over for the short term, and former regional director Clark Gaines, whom Upshaw appointed as his deputy last spring, to remain in that position.
“We’ll put a search committee together, but from the day-to-day operations, they’ve got guys who’ve been there 15, 20 years, [almost] as long as Gene, so from that standpoint, we’re in good shape,” Washington Redskins wide receiver and union representative James Thrash said.
League observers said the union should pick a full-time replacement for Upshaw by season’s end.
“It’s important for someone to have a presence and a respect of ownership,” said Andrew Brandt, a former executive with the Green Bay Packers who also worked as a player agent. “Someone who’s been at the players’ side and knows the owners’ side and can speak on these issues without any ramping up period.”
The long list of potential permanent replacements could include former NFL cornerback and union president Troy Vincent, former Minnesota Vikings running back Robert Smith and Jeffrey Kessler, the union’s outside counsel.
NFL owners spoke respectfully of Upshaw on Thursday, with Redskins owner Dan Snyder describing him as a “Hall of Fame businessman and negotiator.” But the relationship between league owners and the union is at one of its most fragile points in years.
Team owners and the union signed a collective bargaining agreement after the 2006 season that calls for players to earn about 60 percent of league revenues. But owners complained about the deal and opted out of it in May, setting up an season without a salary cap in 2010. Upshaw said the cap wouldn’t return if there were no new agreement in place before then.
There had been some pressure among players over the last year to find a replacement for Upshaw, with some, including Baltimore Ravens kicker Matt Stover, urging the union head to identify a successor.
In April when Upshaw appointed Gaines as his deputy it frustrated some players because they believed Gaines had no aspirations to become Upshaw’s eventual replacement. In explaining his decision to avoid naming a clear successor, Upshaw said in entering tense talks over the CBA, he wanted to ensure the league would negotiate only with him and not a deputy.
“Under our constitution I have full authority to hire anybody I want in our building,” he told ESPN in April. “And with what we’re facing on the labor front, we don’t need to send a signal to owners that they can get a backdoor deal with a No. 2 guy.”
NFLPA president Kevin Mawae, a center for the Tennessee Titans, said earlier this month the players considered Upshaw as the right man to lead them through the period of uncertainty.
“For me, he’s been a friend, a mentor and leader in my life the last 10 years,” Mawae said Thursday. “The unexpected death was a shock to [me] as it was to many others. What I’ll always remember about Gene was, he was a man of his convictions and he’s a man that stood for the players of the NFL.”