by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

With the NFL labor situation in a state of confusion, we thought it appropriate to reprint a related story first run on these pages in October, 2008, shortly after the passing of NFLPA Executive Director Gene Upshaw...

Last month, pro football lost one of its all-time greats when Gene Upshaw passed away at the age of 63. Rarely has someone impacted the NFL in as many ways as Upshaw. Of course, Gene had a long and distinguished playing career as a Hall-of-Fame offensive guard for the Raiders before moving into an even higher-profile position after his playing days concluded when becoming the Executive Director of the NFL Players Association.

Upshaw also left a lot of good friends, and those who knew him personally always seemed to speak highly of his humility. And from most reports, Gene was good company, quick to enjoy a laugh and put everyone at ease. The NFL even went out of its way on the recent opening weekend to honor Upshaw’s memory, the first time we can ever recall any major sporting league paying such respect (posthumous or otherwise) to a labor leader. All of the teams wore a “GU 63" (63 being Upshaw’s number as a Raider) patch on their jerseys, with the same patch recreated as an on-field logo at the stadiums, all a testament to Upshaw’s impact within the league.

But the Upshaw tribute, kind as it was, wasn’t as well received in some corridors of the sport as many sportswriters and TV commentators would have you believe. Granted, anyone who served in a position like Upshaw’s was bound to have his detractors. And though we are not here to pass judgement on the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of Upshaw as a labor leader (perhaps we’ll save that for another day), he nonetheless served as something of a lightning rod for another topic that is an embarrassment to the sport and, frankly, deserves more coverage than it receives from the print and broadcast media.

The fact is that the NFL is now a wildly-popular, billion-dollar organization built on the backs of many oldtime players who sacrificed their mobility, suffered brain trauma and even worse. And many of those veterans have been shamefully denied legitimate disability benefits from the modern-day power brokers of a sport the oldtimers helped make a national institution.

The controversy involves retired players, some from Upshaw’s era, others from longer ago, many of whom now subject to the sort of physical and mental ailments associated with years of playing such a brutal sport. More specifically, the threshold of “disability” as defined in collective bargaining agreements is rather draconian, being that only about 300 retirees (out of several thousand) qualify for disability benefits, with many truly needy ex-players denied aid despite apparently-legitimate claims.

Several hundred of those former NFL and AFL players, almost all of whom receiving minimal retirement benefits, once approached Upshaw for help in having the league and NFLPA consider their plight, but were rather abruptly rebuked. “I don’t work for them,” said Upshaw. “They are not union members, and they have no vote.” This hardly endeared Upshaw to the masses, including a collection of well-to-do former players such as Mike Ditka (left), who has taken it upon himself to campaign for improved benefits and has gone out of his way to raise money for the oldtimers less fortunate than he. Other playing greats such as Jim Brown, plus the widow of Johnny Unitas, and even one of the owners, Al Davis, have also been outspoken sympathizers of the plight of the grizzled retirees, many maimed and otherwise incapacitated from their playing careers.

But Upshaw was touchy about the subject almost to the end, and often bristled at any such criticism relating to the topic. As recently as a year ago, Upshaw reacted angrily to ex-Buffalo Bills (and fellow Hall of Fame) lineman Joe DeLamielleure, a longtime Upshaw critic who was campaigning for better retirement benefits for the former players. “A guy like DeLamielleure says the things he says about me; you think I’m going to invite him to dinner? No, I going to break his...damned neck,” said Upshaw to the Philadelphia Daily News after hearing DeLamielleure’s complaints.

What we never quite understood, however, was why Upshaw had to become the focal point of the debate in the first place, although he was certainly an easy target because of his many controversial quotes and the fact he was earning $6 million per year at the time of his passing. But the money pouring into the coffers of NFL owners should have made them at least, if not more, culpable than Upshaw and the NFLPA in this sorry tale. Although we’re sure not all of the owners (especially the aforementioned Davis) are unsympathetic to the plight of those oldtime players in need, it hardly seems a priority for most of the new-breed franchise chiefs who are rolling in dough these days.

There are several sad tales of former players, barely scraping by as they cope with disabilities. Many of those oldtimers ended up being betrayed by a system that didn’t have the infrastructure in place to document their medical conditions while they played, thus making it harder for them to eventually establish links between football and their various health problems. Great warriors such as John Mackey (left) and Larry Morris, not to mention countless others, are shells of their former selves, and many simply aren’t receiving the kind of assistance they need. A particularly sad tale is one of former Patriots coach and one-time Notre Dame QB John Mazur, suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, and whose plight was highlighted in a Boston Globe story a few years ago. Mazur’s NFL pension has remained at a paltry $1500 per month since 1980, with no cost-of-living increases. Of those who benefited most from Mazur’s long-ago efforts, it was Notre Dame and its concerned alumni, and not the NFL, that stepped up to the plate to offer some much-needed assistance in his time of need. There are countless other sad tales of former players in financial and physical trouble who have also fallen through the cracks while current day owners, players and coaches (and labor leaders) enjoy fabulous perks and wealth, forgetting about those who long ago sacrificed themselves while playing a vital role in establishing their now wildly-profitable industry.

For what it’s worth, we never believed Upshaw was completely unsympathetic to the plight of the oldtimers in need who came knocking at his door a few years ago. Indeed, Upshaw often claimed to be working on resolving some of the issues of the league’s disability benefits program, though he certainly never made the cause of the oldtimers a priority. But this stain on the game remains a lot bigger than anything Gene Upshaw could or couldn’t do about it. We just wonder if it’s ever going to become some kind of priority for those in a position to make a real impact...owners included.

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