Retired players deserve a stronger voice

By Sam Farmer
Updated: September 28, 2008

National Football Players Association LOS ANGELES — There are two types of NFL players.

Retired ones and future retired ones.

The NFL Players Assn. needs to keep that in mind when it looks to replace Gene Upshaw, who died on August 20, just three days after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

In his 25 years as head of the union, Upshaw was an effective advocate for active players. He helped hitch salaries to the wildly successful growth of the league, kept an iron grip on group-licensing rights, and twisted open the jar of free agency.

But he had his blind spots — none larger than his staunch insistence that he worked for active players and not retired ones, hobbled and broken down as they might be. The NFLPA has done too little for the forefathers who poured the foundation of this multibillion-dollar conglomerate.

The union hasn’t turned its back entirely on retired players. It has sweetened pensions to a degree, and Upshaw opened his personal checkbook to help former teammates. The awareness is there, but more needs to be done.

There’s no doubt Upshaw had many talents and left an indelible impression on the NFL as we know it. He could get deals done, and he did a terrific job of holding the union together, helping maintain labor peace even through the most turbulent times. NFL players as a group haven’t missed a paycheck since 1987, and no other major professional sports league can say that.

There are football players who are fabulously wealthy, even though they don’t enjoy the guaranteed contracts loosely granted in other sports. In large part, they have Upshaw to thank.

But in a sport where the average career span is only a few years, where players would rather be cut by a surgeon than cut by a coach, the union needs to play a more meaningful long-term role.

“This is an opportunity for the union to step forward and chart a course that’s more inclusive of retired players,” agent Jerome Stanley said. “These are guys who made the sacrifices, and they should be stakeholders.”

The NFLPA will be doing its members a disservice if it doesn’t hire an executive-search team to find its new director, rather than impulsively replacing Upshaw with one of his underlings.

That’s not to say lawyer Richard Berthelsen, who has been appointed interim executive director, is the wrong choice. He was Upshaw’s right-hand man. Nor is it a knock on former players Troy Vincent and Trace Armstrong, who worked under Upshaw and are now reportedly candidates to replace him.

But the NFLPA needs to do what the NFL did when it replaced commissioner Paul Tagliabue: look beyond the boundaries of convention to find a new leader. Although the league ultimately hired Roger Goodell, a career NFL man, it took the time to weigh and seriously consider other options. From the perspective of a players’ union, the NBA was similarly thorough when it hired Billy Hunter.

And it might just be that Berthelsen, Vincent or someone else already connected to the union is the best choice. The point is, the options need to be studied from every angle.

Whoever steps into Upshaw’s wingtips must know how to cut a deal. The storm clouds are gathering, and NFL owners are bracing for a fistfight over the next collective bargaining agreement. They feel players are getting too much of the pie already, reaping billions in benefits without making enough of a contribution to the gargantuan costs of new stadiums and the like.

It’s highly unlikely that NFL salaries will move backward at this point. So now it’s up to current players to agree on a system that gives more to the ones who came before them.

That will require a new school of thought.

A new school, with old-school guys in mind.