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Outspoken until the end
Published August 25, 2008
In what may have been the last formal interview he gave before his death, Gene Upshaw picked up a telephone in late July and immediately began setting ground rules.
He was on vacation at his home in Lake Tahoe, Calif., and he had consented to talk only because it was for a story in which SportsBusiness Journal was about to name player agent Tom Condon as the most influential agent in sports.
Besides being his personal agent, Condon was one of Upshaw’s oldest and best friends. They had been offensive linemen together in the NFL. They were both NFL Players Association player presidents. And they had fought together for NFL free agency in the late 1980s and early ’90s.
“I will only talk about Condon,” Upshaw said at the start of the call, setting tight boundaries, as he often did when he began an interview. But, as also often happened with Upshaw, he ended up talking on many other topics, ranging from the immediate, such as his anger at NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s public criticism of two rookie contracts, to the historical, such as what it was like when the NFLPA almost went broke during the 1980s during the fight for free agency.
He talked, too, about the controversy over his own employment contract, including criticism that he was paid too much and that he had a conflict of interest in allowing Condon to be his personal agent when it was Upshaw’s job to regulate agents.
“I think what everyone is upset about is they think Tom is my agent and he gets some sort of special treatment and he gets access to me,” Upshaw said.
The reality, he said, was that he had had plenty of arguments with Condon, and the marketing agents who worked for Condon, when he felt they were doing deals that infringed on the territory of the NFLPA’s marketing arm. “I am probably tougher and make more calls to him than any other agent,” Upshaw said.
Condon started representing Upshaw in 1983, when Upshaw first took the union’s executive director job. “I needed a contract and I needed someone to write one up,” Upshaw said, “and Tom had just gotten out of law school.”
The union was deeply in debt, Upshaw said, and so broke that it didn’t always make payroll. “I think I was making, like, $85,000, and they couldn’t even pay it,” he said.
But since the union had no money and Upshaw wasn’t making much anyway, nobody cared that Condon was his agent.
As the NFLPA worked its way out of debt and then prospered to the point that it accumulated hundreds of millions of dollars in assets, Upshaw, who was as stubborn as he was loyal, stayed with Condon. And Condon, who has negotiated record-breaking contracts for players, did the same for Upshaw.
Upshaw’s last contract has been valued at $6 million a year, and Upshaw said Condon was trying to get him even more money than that. Upshaw typically didn’t talk to Condon much while the agent negotiated with the union’s executive committee, but when he did, Upshaw said, “(Condon) would come back to me with some crazy number, and I would say, ‘No, it’s too much. I don’t want that.’”
This interview came just a few weeks after Goodell publicly criticized the five-year, $57.5 million deal signed by No. 1 NFL draft pick Jake Long and the six-year, $72 million deal for No. 3 pick Matt Ryan that Condon negotiated. Upshaw was still steamed. “I think it was really unfair for Goodell to say that about Jake Long and Matt Ryan,” Upshaw said. “As the commissioner of the National Football League, you cannot single out a player individually about his contract.
“Who he should be singling out is the owner who agreed to the contract and not the player who accepted it. What is really bad about it is: What can Matt Ryan or Jake Long say? ‘I don’t want the money?’
“Just looking at what he gets paid as the rookie commissioner, he is doing pretty well,” added Upshaw, of Goodell.
Upshaw, as he admitted publicly, often was too honest for his own good and would say things that got him into trouble. During the interview, Upshaw did not indicate in any way that he was ill, although he did not crack any jokes, as he usually did.
Also, in this interview, he was uncharacteristically at a loss for words when asked to describe Condon.
“I don’t know how you describe a friend,” Upshaw said. “It’s easy to describe someone you don’t like. But it’s hard to describe someone you really care about.”
In describing Condon, Upshaw ended up describing himself, because he said that to really know Condon, you had to know what it was like to be an offensive lineman.
“There is a certain mind-set about offensive linemen,” Upshaw said. “If you look at the positions of the players, the best leaders have been offensive linemen. We understand the people around us. We understand the jobs they have to do.
“You have to go into the huddle and do what the quarterback says. You have to run the plays, whether you like it or not, and depend on your teammates to do their jobs.
“That is what we do.”