Remembering Gene Upshaw

By Dave Zirin

The last thirty years haven’t exactly been kind to the labor movement. It’s been a story of slow death, with decades of falling union numbers, stagnant wages and disappearing pensions—all signs pointing toward total oblivion. It’s been the era as former UAW President Doug Fraser put so aptly, “The one sided class war.”

That’s why it’s so important for anyone who wants a fighting labor movement, to take a moment and remember the late president of the NFL Players Association (NFLPA), Gene Upshaw. Upshaw died on Wednesday at age 63 of pancreatic cancer.

In addition to a storied Hall of Fame playing career with the Oakland Raiders, Upshaw headed the NFLPA since 1983. When Upshaw started, the average NFL salary was $112,000. Today it is more than $2 million. Of course the game has exploded with cable television and publicly funded stadiums turning revenue streams into floods. But Upshaw led victorious fights at the negotiating table for free agency and higher wages against the wealthiest, most well-connected and most conservative ownership class in sports.

Dave Meggyesy, former NFL player who headed the West Coast office of the NFLPA until his retirement last year, said to me yesterday, “I worked with Gene for twenty-five years. We did hundreds of team meetings together and so well complimented each other. I knew intimately how good a leader he really was, how much he cared for the players and how strong and tough—relentless really—he was to ‘make it right’ for the players. We shared that vision, we would do whatever it took until the last man standing.”

The great criticism against Upshaw was that he and the union didn’t do enough to help retired players. In a charge led by Mike Ditka—an anti-union zealot—they said the union was allowing former players, broken down by the game, to live penniless and destitute. I have written about this before and I find these charges to be without merit. It’s like blaming an oil workers union for high prices at the pump. Yes, the way some former players live, old and broken before their time, is a sin. But to put that on the feet of Upshaw and the union, is simply wrong. As former NFLPA President Troy Vincent pointed out to me, the last collective bargaining agreement saw pensions for players who retired before 1982 increase 25 percent. After 1982, they went up ten percent.

People disabled by the game have seen annual benefits rise from $48,000 to $224,000. For non-football injuries, the rates have gone from $9000 per year in 1982 to $134,000 by 2000. Upshaw “has done an excellent job,” NFL player Mike Minter said a year ago to ESPN “You’ve got a lot of older guys who are hurting and it seems like we’re not taking care of them. But where we started, when the man took the job, to where we are today, it’s unbelievable. For anybody to say that this guy is not doing a great job doesn’t know.” Robert Smith, the former Minnesota Viking who was their team union rep for seven years said on ESPN yesterday, “My criticism of Gene was that he didn’t defend himself more forcibly.”

Well, now Gene Upshaw can’t defend himself at all so I will do it now and proudly. His legacy is about showing that solidarity and collective bargaining actually work. The greatest tribute to Upshaw may have been this off-season when the NFL owners voted unanimously to rescind the most recent collective bargaining agreement. The owners, a band of hostile brothers with more factions than the old politburo, had actually united in fury that Upshaw had pulled too much money out of their billion-dollar pockets. The rest of the labor movement should take note, and give due to a man who did right by his players and his sport.

There are lessons here in how to turn around the “one sided class war” and winning back the wages and benefits torn from the working people of this country. Meggyesy once said to me about their organizing style, “We’re athletes. And we just really hate to lose.”

Dave Zirin is the author of the forthcoming A People’s History of Sports in the United States (The New Press). Receive his column every week by emailing Contact him at

—, August 22, 2008