NEW YORK – Gene Upshaw, the Hall of Fame guard who as union head helped get NFL players free agency and the riches that came with it, has died. He was 63.
Upshaw's death was announced by the NFL Players Association, which he headed for a quarter century. He had been battling pancreatic cancer.
His outstanding 15-season playing career was entirely with the Oakland Raiders and included two Super Bowl wins and seven Pro Bowl appearances. Upshaw's biography was posted on the front page of the Hall of Fame Web site Thursday along with his enshrinement speech from 1987.
In 1983, he became executive director of the players' association and guided it through the 1987 strike that led to replacement football. By 1989, the players had a limited form of freedom, called Plan B, and in 1993, free agency and a salary cap were instituted.
Since then, the players have prospered so much that NFL owners recently opted out of the latest labor contract, which was negotiated two years ago by Upshaw and then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue.
Upshaw was criticized by some for not being tough enough in negotiations with Tagliabue, a close friend of the union head. He also was blamed by many older veterans for not dealing sufficiently with their health concerns.
But the salary cap for this season is $116 million and the players are making close to 60 percent of the 32 teams' total revenues, as specified in the 2006 agreement. In all, the players will be paid $4.5 billion this year, according to owners.