NFL union chief Gene Upshaw cornered at Super Bowl

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upshaw.jpg In January, Scene wrote about the abandonment of NFL players after retirement, many of whom are saddled with health problems, tiny pensions, and impossible disability standards ("Forgotten Forefathers," January 16). The chief of the players’ union (the NFLPA), Gene Upshaw isn’t exactly the picture of concern or sympathy for these guys -- he’s declared that he works only for active players. After several attempts to reach Upshaw, I had to settle for an NFLPA spokesman — perhaps because every time Mean Gene talks to a reporter, he threatens or personally insults one of the complaining ex-players. But reporters managed to corner Upshaw at a Super Bowl news conference last week, and the chief was as harshly dismissive as ever. ... "Guess what, I've been reading [the criticism], and guess what, it doesn't have any effect on what I will do tomorrow, the next day and the next hour," said Upshaw, as quoted by ESPN.com. "It's just like water off a duck's back. It had no effect before and it will have no effect." Upshaw insisted that, despite $7 billion dollars in annual revenue, “every dollar in the National Football League is spoken for,” so no additional union funds will be devoted to retirees. And while the chief finally acknowledged the problem, and pledged to “solve it," he gave no specific plan. He did say that if any progress is to be made, it will be due to discussion and cooperation between the two sides, rather than any reaction to public attack. The relationship has gotten so bad between the chief and his critics, however, that it’s difficult to see any fences mended at this point. “You can’t deal with a habitual liar,” ex-Brown Bernie Parrish, who’s filed suit against the union, told Scene last month, when asked if he would be willing to sit down with Upshaw. “Why would you want to meet with him? When I meet to him, it will be at a deposition, and it will be under oath.” Parrish and Upshaw, it seems, may never partner at a celebrity golf tournament after all. With Upshaw’s contract expiring in ’09, it’s fair to assume that he’ll pass the problem on to his successor. And on that front, there was another mild development at the conference: Troy Vincent, NFLPA president and Upshaw’s heir apparent, showed approval of charity fund Gridiron Greats’ donations to troubled ex-players, saying, “The more the better.” Not exactly an earth-shaking speech, but it’s more than anything Upshaw’s had to say about retired player charities, which he seems to see as an affront to his leadership. Vincent’s been groomed by Upshaw, and has been non-committal on the disability and pension issues. And if there is to be a real solution to this problem—rather than a series of bandaids applied by outside organizations—the next union leader is going to have to be willing to roll up his sleeves and make real changes. -- Gus Garcia-Roberts

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