- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 28, 2002

Major League Baseball, whose players struck just four years ago, might face a repeat as early as this fall. NHL players, who skipped half the 1994-1995 season, already are contemplating a walkout in 2004. And the NBA hasn't forgotten the pain of losing a third of its 1998-1999 campaign to a labor dispute.
Meanwhile, the NFL which hasn't had a season interrupted since 1987 recently extended its collective bargaining agreement with its players through 2007. Why does football succeed where its counterparts fail?
Gene Upshaw is a major reason. Unlike his counterparts in baseball, basketball and hockey, the NFL Players Association executive director isn't a lawyer. Upshaw moved straight from the playing field he was a Hall of Fame guard for the Oakland Raiders from 1967 to 1982 to the union's office on L Street NW.
"I didn't think Gene was going to be easy pickings [for us] because he had been a player," recalled Art Modell, then the owner of the Cleveland Browns. "Gene brought an understanding of what makes players tick as well as an understanding of the game."
Upshaw's unparalleled labor success is a product of the leadership skills he displayed as a player he was voted the Raiders' offensive captain as a rookie and their union rep in his fourth year and the realization on both sides of the bargaining table after two strikes in six years that they were better off as partners instead of enemies.
"The five years after the 1987 strike were the toughest," said Upshaw, who succeeded attorney Ed Garvey in 1983 and helped bring free agency to the NFL. This season's free agency market opens Saturday. "We didn't have a union. We didn't have dues checkoff. We had lost some court cases. But we kept the organization together because we had built the confidence of the players in the NFLPA. We had the right guys as player reps. The players supported our licensing program. And they understood what the real issues were and why they were worth fighting for. That's how we ended up with free agency."
And 63 percent of league revenues.
Modell remembers the derision that greeted Garvey asking for 55 percent of league revenues in the 1970s. Upshaw said when he first proposed a partnership with the NFL after the 1982 strike, then-Tampa Bay owner Hugh Culverhouse basically told him to get lost. Culverhouse wasn't alone in that feeling.
Still, if the NFL wanted to avoid baseball's spiraling out of control player costs, something had to change. And the NFLPA was so frustrated that in 1989 it applied for decertification as a union in order to be able to sue the NFL for antitrust violations.
Upshaw maintains that the input of commissioner Paul Tagliabue (who replaced Pete Rozelle in 1989) was critical since he was much more involved in negotiations than his predecessor, who had ceded the labor issue to the owners. NFL executive vice-president Harold Henderson, the league's chief labor negotiator since 1991, and Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, who has sat across the negotiating table from Upshaw for two decades, said the savvy leadership and gentlemanly resolve of the union chief were just as essential.
"Gene has always represented the players, but he has always been very fair," Rooney said. "Gene drives a hard bargain, but he has always had a love of the game."
After an uncapped first year of free agency under the landmark 1993 CBA, a salary cap of $34.6 million a team was imposed in 1994. Eight years later, the cap has more than doubled to $72.1 million. The deal has been tweaked almost every year and extended four times. And as far as Upshaw is concerned it should never expire.
"We built in some serious disincentives to blowing up the deal early," he said. "The owners don't want to immediately go to an uncapped year and the players don't want free agency to move back from your fourth to your sixth year. We don't ever want to tear it up and start at page one again. There are certain things (free agency and the salary cap) that you just don't want to negotiate again."
Upshaw doesn't like the way the franchise tag has been used and he despises teams keeping players until June 1 and then cutting them to avoid a big cap hit. Henderson didn't expect huge signing bonus pro-rations. But in the big picture, those are brushstrokes.
The NFL's system, including its teams' sharing of most revenues, might be the best. Baseball has no cap along with outrageous financial imbalances. The NHL is also cap-less, its players aren't true free agents until age 31 and the six Canadian franchises operate at a distinct economic disadvantage. The NBA guarantees contracts as baseball does and its free agency and cap resemble the NFL's, but the players don't receive as big a chunk of the revenues. Upshaw often talks to his counterparts in the other sports about such common issues as tax laws, workers compensation and agent regulation but doesn't push his system on them. An official at the MLBPA snorted at the lack of guaranteed contracts in the NFL.
"When it comes to our systems, each of us knows what's best," Upshaw said. "I don't think they sit around being jealous of us. The economics of football are so different. The revenue sharing among the owners is what makes the NFL so strong. No one wants labor peace more than [his fellow union heads], but they also want good deals and fair deals."
Which is true of the NFLPA at least through 2007, when Upshaw plans to retire.
"I'll be 61 and it will be time to let someone else do this," Upshaw said. "It was a lot easier when I was playing. You went to work, you practiced and you went home. Here the phone still rings when you go home and there's no offseason. But there's a lot of satisfaction in being able to accomplish what we have in really a short period of time. What we do affects so many lives, not just the players, but their kids. No matter how long it has been since players played the game, they always call. And we're always here for them."


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