Gene Upshaw Biography
Grew Into Football, All-Pro Guard, Led NFL Players Union
Football player, union executive
As a guard for pro football's Oakland Raiders, Gene Upshaw established a reputation as one of the most dominating players on the field. As the longtime executive director of the NFL Players' Association, he is widely regarded as one of the most powerful players on the sidelines. Upshaw helped the Raiders win two Super Bowls during his playing career, and became the standard by which all offensive linemen of the period were measured. During his long tenure at the helm of the Players' Association, Upshaw led the bargaining that led to free agency, big increases in profits from product licensing, and the best benefit package in professional sports.
Grew Into Football
Eugene Upshaw, Jr., was born on August 15, 1945, in Robstown, Texas. His father, Eugene Sr., worked for the local oil company, while his mother, Cora, was a domestic laborer. Upshaw was the oldest of three brothers. One of his brothers, Marvin, also went on to enjoy a successful NFL football career. As a child, Upshaw and his brothers attended a four-room schoolhouse. They earned extra money picking cotton, for which they were paid $1.25 for every 100 pounds of cotton they picked.
The only time the Upshaw brothers were allowed to avoid cotton-picking duties was when they were playing baseball. Needless to say, they spent as much time on the diamond as they could. Gene became a standout pitcher, and Marvin served as his catcher. The brothers carried their little league team to within one game of the Little League World Series in 1958. Gene went on to star for his high school baseball team. At only 5' 10" and 185 pounds, however, he had neither the size nor the aggressive nature to make much of a splash on the football field. He did play one year of varsity football, but it was brother Marvin who excelled at that sport. Eugene Sr.—a former semi-pro baseball player himself—warned Gene that if he signed a bonus to pitch in the minors instead of going to college, he would be kicked out of the house. Upon graduating from Robstown High School, Gene obediently enrolled at nearby Texas A&I.
Although he did not especially care for the contact and violence of football, Upshaw decided to try out for the football team at Texas A&I, in the hope of translating his natural athletic ability into a scholarship. The plan worked. The minute coach Gil Steinke saw the powerfully-built Upshaw, he said, according to the Hartford Courant, "Get a uniform on him." Three days later, Upshaw had his scholarship. By this time, Upshaw had begun to grow, and he continued to grow throughout college, reaching an imposing 6' 5" and 265 pounds by his senior year.
Playing center and tackle, Upshaw had a stellar career at Texas A&I. He was named First Team All-Lone Star Conference and received honorable mention Little All-America from the Associated Press in his senior year. Pro scouts projected that Upshaw would be selected in the third round of the 1967 National Football League (NFL)-American Football League (AFL) draft. He performed so well at the Senior Bowl, the Coaches All-American Bowl, and the College All-Star game, however, that he quickly came to be considered one of the top linemen available. The Oakland Raiders of the AFL selected Upshaw in the first round, making him the 17th player chosen overall in the entire draft.
As a rookie for the Raiders, Upshaw was switched to the guard position. His combination of speed, strength, and mobility quickly made him the prototype for the next generation of NFL guards. Upshaw's impact on the field was immediate, as the Raiders made it into the playoffs in each of his first three seasons with the team, and 11 times overall during his career, which lasted from 1967 until 1982. Three times during that span, the Raiders won the AFL (later the American Football Conference (AFC) championship, and in two of those seasons, 1977 and 1981, they won the Super Bowl. Upshaw was the only pro football player to play in the Super Bowl in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.
In addition to his talents as a player, Upshaw's natural leadership skills quickly became apparent. He was a team leader on and off the field. For ten years, Upshaw was a Raider team captain. In 1970 he became the Raiders' representative to the players' union, the NFL Players' Association (NFLPA). Around the time he was becoming active in football union issues, Upshaw began to take an interest in general politics as well. He joined the Democratic Party Central Committee of Alameda County, California, in 1970, and later served on the Alameda County Planning Commission, the California Board of Governors for Community Colleges, and the Governor's Council on Wellness and Physical Fitness. He was also actively involved with numerous charitable organizations.
Meanwhile, Upshaw was showered with awards for his performance on the field. He played in the Pro Bowl six times. In 1977 he was named NFL Lineman of the Year, and he earned AFC Lineman of the Year honors in 1973 and 1974. In 1976, after six years as the Raiders' players' representative, Upshaw was elected to the NFLPA Executive Committee. He was named union president, under executive director Ed Garvey, in 1980. As president of the NFLPA, Upshaw was cast in the role of the heavy, taking serious flack from both sides during the NFL players' 57-day strike in 1982. As the point person in communicating the union's stance to team owners, the public, and the players' association's own members, Upshaw was criticized for being too inflexible and militant. When Garvey resigned as head of the union the following year, Upshaw—who, as a freshly-retired player, had more credibility among players than Garvey ever did—was perceived as the best candidate to succeed him.
Meanwhile, Upshaw continued to receive recognition for his community service contributions. In 1980 he received the prestigious Byron "Whizzer" White Humanitarian Award for outstanding contribution to "team, community, and country." Two years later he was presented with the A. Phillip Randolph Award for significant accomplishments as one of the outstanding black leaders in America. Among the groups he worked with were the Muscular Dystrophy Association and the National Committee on Drug Prevention.
Led NFL Players Union
The NFLPA that Upshaw took over in 1983 was an organization in disarray. Still reeling from the devastating effects of the 1982 strike, the union was broke, lacked the confidence of its own members, and had a terrible public image. Upshaw quickly took measures to address each of these problems. Although still taking a tough stance in negotiations, he worked to develop a positive relationship with Jack Donlan, chief negotiator for the team owners, and a man whom Upshaw's predecessor Garvey had clashed with frequently. Despite these efforts, Upshaw was perceived as being "militant," a term that he complained was racially charged. According to Upshaw, a white person who takes a strong position is "viewed as 'taking a strong position.' But if you're black and you take a strong position, you're viewed as militant," he told the Washington Post. Upshaw's credentials as a labor leader received a boost in 1985, when he was elected to the executive council of the AFL-CIO, one of the most powerful national labor unions.
In 1987 Upshaw was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His biggest challenges as a union man remained ahead of him, however. When pro football's collective bargaining agreement expired in the fall of 1987, Upshaw called for a player strike to protest the owners' inflexible bargaining position on the issue of free agency, a contract provision that gives players the right to sell their labor to any team. The strike failed miserably. The owners hired strikebreakers to play for them and convinced the television stations to broadcast the games. Players began to cross the picket line in droves, and in mid-October they voted to end the strike. To add insult to injury, the owners locked the players out for an additional week.
Undaunted, Upshaw came up with a new strategy. He decertified the players' union, which essentially made all players free agents from a legal standpoint. The move caught the owners off-guard, and led to another five years of legal maneuvering and negotiations, including at least twenty lawsuits filed against the league by Upshaw on the players' behalf. The end result was the 1993 signing of a new seven-year contract that gave players some free-agency rights and gave the owners a salary cap. Although some players and owners were not pleased with the deal, it represented a compromise that both sides could live with. More importantly, football was no longer the only major sport without some form of player free agency. The New York Times called free agency Upshaw's "crowning jewel" in a collection of football treasures. In reality, the deal Upshaw helped forge was a double-edged sword for some. While it led to spectacular new contracts for many up-and-coming stars, a lot of aging veterans found themselves cast aside, or were forced to play for dramatically reduced salaries.
In the years since 1993, Upshaw, the NFLPA, and NFL team owners have worked together to decrease the adversarial nature of labor talks and to ensure that pro football is profitable for all involved. The result of the labor-management cooperation was the signing, in 2002, of a third-straight extension of the collective bargaining agreement, good through the year 2007. The 2002 agreement gave players full free agency and ensured that 65 to 70 percent of NFL revenues would be dedicated to player salaries and benefits. In exchange, team owners won salary cap provisions that allow them to keep their total payroll under control. Upshaw attributes the long period of peaceful labor relations in pro football to the shared interests of players and owners. He told Business Week in 2003: "We both understand that it's in everyone's best interest to have a league that is well run. We don't want to blow a good thing."
In addition to his work with the union, in 1994 Upshaw helped launch an organization, called National Football League Players, Inc. (or simply Players Inc.), that aimed to maximize the players' profits from licensing and marketing activities. Players Inc. became the first players association devoted to "taking the helmets off" players and marketing them as personalities as well as professional athletes. With Upshaw as its Chairman of the Board, Players Inc. has moved far beyond typical licensing activities, becoming involved in the creation, ownership and marketing of special events, promotions, publishing, and recording and broadcasting projects. Players Inc. produced its first nationally syndicated television special, the "NFL Players Rookie Premiere," in 1997; by 2000, the program was reaching over 40 million homes annually. Other activities have included the promotion of special appearances by players, scheduling of golf events, production of radio shows, and negotiation of corporate sponsorships. By 2001, Players Inc. had licensed over 100 companies for retail products, including trading cards and collectibles, video games and sports apparel.
Upshaw is widely acclaimed for his role in ensuring the stability and success of professional football in the 1990s and early 2000s. In fact, The Sporting News has regularly placed him on its list of the 100 most powerful people in sports. In 1997 Upshaw signed a new salary contract with the NFLPA and Players Inc. worth $11.2 million over seven years, making him the highest paid union boss in all of professional team sports. In 2003, Players Association representatives elected Upshaw to his seventh consecutive term as executive director. Upshaw promised that his seventh term would be his last, announcing in 2003 that he would retire from his position at the end of his contract in 2007.
Business Week, January 27, 2003, p. 91.
Ebony, December 1983, p. 76.
Football Digest, March 2003, p. 48.
Jet, November 25, 1985, p. 38; October 19, 1987, p. 49; October 20, 1997, p. 51.
New York, September 26, 1994, pp. 24-28.
New York Times, August 11, 1996, p. S3.
PR Newswire, March 19, 2003.
Sports Illustrated, September 14, 1987, pp. 64-74.
"Gene Upshaw," Pro Football Hall of Fame, www.profootballhof.com/hof/member.jsp?player_id=220 (August 18, 2004).
National Football League Players Association, www.nflpa.org (August 18, 2004).
NFL Players, www.nflplayers.com (August 18, 2004).
—Robert R. Jacobson And