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Despite unrest, Upshaw was still in charge
Published August 25, 2008
For months before he died, NFL Players Association Executive Director Gene Upshaw faced an uprising by some players within the union leadership who demanded that, after 25 years of running the group, he find a successor. The move came as the union prepared for its most contentious labor negotiation in decades.
Upshaw hated what was happening, he told SportsBusiness Journal and others close to him, because he believed it could undercut the union’s unity as it negotiated with NFL owners. But recently something turned Upshaw’s way, although he did not go public with it, several sources said.
In July, six members of the NFLPA’s 11-member executive committee voted to table any talk of a potential successor until the NFLPA’s annual meeting in March 2009. The five other members did not vote. “There were no ‘no’ votes,” said a highly placed source.
Now with Upshaw’s shocking death, questions that might have been put to rest with that July vote could resurface, just as the NFLPA enters a difficult period of negotiation with the league. The NFL in May opted out of the collective-bargaining agreement, making next season the last with a salary cap under the current deal.
“The union will move forward,” said Jeffrey Kessler, the NFLPA’s outside counsel, “and Gene’s legacy will continue.”
The NFLPA executive committee on Thursday voted to name Richard Berthelsen, the union’s longtime general counsel, acting executive director.
But how Berthelsen will approach the job and when a permanent successor will be picked are big questions, even as such uncertainty is sure to affect chances of the league and union cutting a deal before the 2009 free agency period begins in early March. If there is no extension of the CBA by March 2010, the next season will be played without a salary cap. Upshaw always said that if that happened, the players would never again agree to a cap.
If no deal is reached past 2010, the owners would likely lock the players out in 2011.
One outside expert said the sudden departure of a strong-willed leader with no clear successor spelled trouble, as different factions could emerge trying to take over.
“You see it in all different types of organizations, more often than not it leads to a period of tenuous leadership,” said Irwin Kishner, head of Herrick, Feinstein’s sports and entertainment practice. “Frankly, not having a No. 2 in place is not good.”
Upshaw strongly rejected the idea of installing a No. 2 executive earlier this spring, after the NFLPA held its annual meeting in March and after Yahoo! Sports reported that former player president Troy Vincent was expected to be named the No. 2 man at the union. That didn’t happen.
“There is only a No. 1 and there will not be a No. 2,” Upshaw wrote in an e-mail to SportsBusiness Journal in April. “Number 2 is always trying to become No. 1 and never wants to wait.”
Shortly after making that public comment, ESPN reported that there was an effort to oust Upshaw after the news outlet was leaked a memo about a succession plan.
SportsBusiness Journal reported that several player representatives were approached at the NFLPA annual meeting with a proposal to vote Upshaw out and Vincent in as executive director. Vincent, whom several media outlets have dubbed a natural successor for Upshaw, has denied that he was part of such a plan.
“This is about nothing more than personal agendas,” Upshaw told SportsBusiness Journal in April. He declined to elaborate, other than to say, “People can draw their own conclusions on what that means.”
Dissent leaked out of the union again in July when The Washington Times reported that some members of the union’s executive committee had voted to hire a search firm to start a succession process. SportsBusiness Journal later reported that members of the executive committee had been holding meetings without the presence of Upshaw and player president Kevin Mawae, in apparent violation of the union’s constitution.
It is believed that Mawae and Upshaw had the support of the majority of the 64-member board of player representatives, but that the group of dissidents, at least at one point in time, had the majority of the support of the executive committee.
That is why, sources said, it was a win for Upshaw when six members of the executive committee voted in July to table any discussion of a successor until March. When he so suddenly died, Upshaw had the support of the majority of the executive committee and the player representatives.