A Different Look At Gene

By Jason Whitlock
Updated: August 22, 2008

KANSAS CITY — Few things are celebrated and exalted more vigorously in America than a dead black leader. So today, after Gene Upshaw died of pancreatic cancer Wednesday night, is probably his best day as executive director of the NFL Players Association.

You might think that sounds inappropriately angry in the year of Barack Obama.

But it’s not written with animosity. It’s a simple statement of fact. You have to keep in mind that Obama is a politician, not a leader — unless you consider bad-mouthing Clarence Thomas and disavowing your religious mentor for political gain as strong leadership.

Nope. Leaders who happen to be black spend most of their days in this country dodging arrows … until they’re dead or rendered harmless.

It’s why most Americans are uncomfortable with Jim Brown and love Muhammad Ali, the two transcendent athletes from the 1960s who represented black empowerment. Ali, felled by Parkinson’s Disease, lit the 1996 Olympic torch and is a beloved figure now that he mumbles and shakes.

Brown is the same unbending, uncompromised free-thinker who makes people uncomfortable because he wears a funny hat and believes gangbangers and parolees can be productive U.S. citizens.

We’ll love Brown when he’s gone. The same way we fell in love with Martin Luther King and Malcolm X once they were no longer a threat.

On a smaller scale, the same fate awaits Gene Upshaw. The long-time head of the NFLPA has been beaten up and vilified for a leadership style that was highly effective in the 1990s and new millennium but not stereotypically militant enough to please the media critics who hypocritically blast Al Sharpton and label any black man who chooses a different path a sellout.

Upshaw chose to change the NFL from the inside. He worked in concert with former commissioner Paul Tagliabue and NFL ownership. The strategy landed NFL players nearly 60 percent of all gross revenue, a deal so good for the players that the owners opted out of it and are willing to risk labor peace.

Upshaw saw an opportunity in partnership with the owners. Grow the overall game and ask for a bigger percentage of the revenue. It was his job to take care of all 53 players on 32 rosters. In a league with a high incidence of injury, that’s a very difficult task — much more difficult than caring for 12 basketball players and 25 baseball players per team.

The NFL is clearly healthier than major-league baseball and the NBA. And that’s not to say those leagues are in trouble. It’s just amazing that the same problems that afflict baseball (performance-enhancing drugs) and the NBA (player behavior) don’t cause near the same trouble in the NFL.

Could it be because Upshaw’s leadership and relationship with NFL owners help professional football stay ahead of those issues?

Now that Upshaw is dead you’ll be hearing and reading a lot about his leadership-through-accommodation method. It actually worked. It grew the league to the point where all the old NFL players are insanely jealous and feel as if the current players owe them money.

Yep, the whole “reparations” movement powered by Mike Ditka and all the other angry old men is a direct byproduct of the success of the NFL, which Upshaw played a huge role in.

Of course, when he was alive Upshaw was trashed for his inability to convince the current players (mostly black) to hand over a portion of their earnings to the retired players (mostly white) who built the game. There is no precedent for retired workers having their post-career benefits significantly improved … other than retired NFL players.

Yep, when he was alive Upshaw got zero credit for the improved benefits retired players did receive.

When it came to Gene Upshaw all you heard in the media was that he was a sellout for dealing with Tagliabue as a partner and that he didn’t care about the old players and that it was a terrible shame he didn’t make the owners give the players guaranteed contracts.

Never mind that guaranteed contracts across the board would absolutely destroy professional football. The game is too violent and injurious to withstand guaranteed contracts.

Never mind that the huge signing bonuses high draft picks and star players receive pretty much guarantee contracts for three to four years because of the salary-cap implications.

Never mind that guaranteed contracts in baseball and basketball are not part of collective-bargaining agreements. They became commonplace in those sports thanks to the work of aggressive sports agents.

But when Gene Upshaw was alive it was entirely his fault. He couldn’t do anything right.

Now that he’s dead you’ll hear the other side of the Gene Upshaw story. He was a visionary who helped the NFL become a powerhouse while also helping the current players amass great fortunes. He did his job quite well.