60 Heroes: Gene Upshaw's Legacy
Gene Upshaw’s activism as a player and his extensive accomplishments as the NFLPA’s Executive Director are unmatched. Even before becoming the NFLPA’s Executive Director, Gene Upshaw was a leader—on and off the field. Selected by the Oakland Raiders in the first round of the 1967 NFL Draft, he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1987 and the NFL’s All-Time 75th Anniversary team in 1994. He also became the first player to play in Super Bowls across three different decades.
As a player, his strength and leadership off the field was just as impactful. Elected as the Raiders’ alternate Player Rep in 1974, Upshaw led his team during the preseason strike that year, and even helped strengthen picket lines at other training camp sites.
During his three-year presidency from 1980-1983, Upshaw famously labeled the NFLPA’s Percentage of Gross Revenue Plan as “etched in stone” and led a 57-day strike, ending with a new CBA. This new agreement established, among other things, a new severance pay plan, a medical “bill of rights” and a guaranteed expenditure for player costs that significantly increased the percentage of league and club revenues that went to the players.
After his retirement from football in 1983, Upshaw was selected the Executive Director of the NFLPA by the Executive Committee and the Board of Player Reps. In pursuit of his goal to put the NFLPA back into the hands of the players, Upshaw championed their consensus to make free agency the number one bargaining goal when the 1982 CBA expired in 1987. Upshaw made this his mission. With his leadership, the players went on strike for four weeks during the 1987 season.
After seeing the strike could not succeed against a monopoly like the NFL, Upshaw convinced the Player Reps to stop the strike and instead file an antitrust suit against the NFL and the clubs to challenge their ongoing free-agency restrictions. When the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the District Court’s decision that the players had no antitrust rights so long as they were represented by a union, Upshaw responded. He convinced the Player Reps to renounce the NFLPA’s union status and financed a new lawsuit, Freeman McNeil v. The NFL, that brought down the NFL’s free agency restrictions in 1992. Following a related settlement reached in 1993, the players obtained the right to free agency and a guaranteed share of club revenues for the first time in NFLPA history
In his 25 years as Executive Director, Gene Upshaw led the NFLPA to many “firsts,” including a 401(k) program, a player annuity plan, health reimbursement accounts for vested players and a league-wide incentive pay system known as “performance-based pay,” among others. He also established NFL Players Inc., which now generates tens of millions in group licensing revenue for the players each year.
NFLPA’s non-profit organization, the Professional Athletes Foundation (PAF) was founded in 1990. No stranger to the game, Gene Upshaw recognized the many challenges players faced after their playing careers concluded. After learning what these former players needed to succeed, through his namesake, the PAF’s Gene Upshaw Player Assistance Trust (PAT) grant began by awarding a single $1,000 grant to a former NFL player. Presently, PAF has provided more than $26 million in financial hardship assistance.
Upshaw, who was elected to the Executive Council of the AFL-CIO in 1985, worked tirelessly to establish the NFLPA as a respected union. Those efforts included purchasing two different buildings in Washington, D.C. to serve as the NFLPA’s headquarters, with the current site named “63 Upshaw Place” in his honor. Upshaw also launched the “88 Plan” (in honor of John Mackey’s jersey number) to provide monetary benefits to former players who, like Mackey, suffered from neurological disorders.
Following a brief, difficult battle with pancreatic cancer, Upshaw tragically passed away in August of 2008 but his legacy lives on as a groundbreaker and pioneer for the NFLPA and its members.