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Original Issue

Buddy System

Their counterparts in other sports fuss and fight, but the NFL commissioner and union chief often act like teammates. Can this be good for the game?

Oh, sure, the games are exciting, but labor-management relations in the NFL are just no fun to watch. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw lack the crackling chemistry you find in hockey (where their counterparts Gary Bettman and Bob Goodenow have squabbled away a whole season so far), baseball (where Bud Selig and Donald Fehr's failure to communicate has helped produce a steroid scandal) and basketball (where David Stern has hinted lockout and Billy Hunter has charged racism). Now, that's entertainment! In contrast, the NFL has Tagliabue at the congressional steroid hearings in April, heaping praise upon the man who might be his adversary, saying Upshaw "is very well-suited ... to speak to some of the issues about what has gone on ... in locker rooms." At last week's NFL owners' meetings in Washington, Upshaw returned the favor, bemoaning the possible loss of the cap that limits NFLPA members' salaries. Which raises the question, Are these guys too cozy for the good of their constituents?

Some think so. Upshaw's critics point out that NFL players-unlike their counterparts in those contentious sports mentioned above-don't have guaranteed contracts, and that a relatively few superstar salaries misleadingly boost the average. Upshaw, some say, also has the unsettling habit of making Tagliabue's points for him: For example, the union leader torpedoes arguments for guaranteed contracts by saying they would actually decrease the values of many players' deals. "Their ability to see eye-to-eye is a positive if it means no labor stoppage," says former quarterback and current CBS analyst Boomer Esiason, who was the Bengals' player rep from 1986 to '88. "But it's disconcerting watching them say the same thing."

Life wasn't always so harmonious in the NFL. Upshaw, a Raiders offensive lineman from 1967 to '81, waded into classic labor strife when he took over the union in 1983. At the time commissioner Pete Rozelle allowed a group of hard-line owners known as the NFL Management Council to represent the league in labor negotiations; Upshaw says the owners tried "to crush us at every turn." Guaranteed bonuses in contracts were nonexistent, as was medical coverage for ex-players. "And as a large black man in a position of power," says Upshaw, "I was dismissed as a militant."

The rancor led to two strikes, one in 1982 that lasted two months and another under Upshaw's watch in '87 that led to three games being played with replacement players. It was during those negotiations that Upshaw got to know Tagliabue, then a league lawyer. The union man remembers being impressed with the future commish's conciliatory nature. Indeed, Tagliabue's ability to deal with NFLPA leaders helped him win the job as Rozelle's replacement in 1989.

When he took office, Tagliabue reorganized the Management Council, making it report to him, allowing his voice to be heard in negotiations. He also brokered partnerships with the union on projects like youth-football initiatives and the creation of NFL Europe. It "enabled us to build trust," Tagliabue said in an April 2004 interview, "and to recognize that neither side was a demon." In 1993 Upshaw and Tagliabue signed a CBA that brought about free agency, a salary cap, guaranteed bonuses-and robust financial health for both sides. The average NFL franchise has quadrupled in value and the average player salary has doubled since then, to $733 million and $1.25 million, respectively. The $12.4 billion broadcast deals the league signed with NBC and ESPN in April mean those numbers will rise again. "Their relationship does appear to be close," says agent Jim Steiner, whose clients include Jerry Rice, "but that's a benefit because it keeps things moving." Says Tiki Barber, Giants tailback and a former player rep, "Let's remember how far they've come. Things were bleak, but Gene never backed down."

The Tagliabue-Upshaw bond will soon be tested. The CBA expires after the 2007 season and the sides are bracing for a fight. Upshaw says owners want to reduce the players' share of gross league revenue from 60% to 57%. "Their last proposal to us was totally unacceptable," Upshaw said last week. "You see what happened to hockey. Now basketball is moving in the same direction. I don't see us being too far off the pace from those two."

So Upshaw is capable of the thinly veiled public threat, and no doubt other classic labor-negotiation tactics. If the past is any indication, though, the two sides will remember that the NFL has a good thing going, and that by keeping each other reasonably happy they can, and do, prosper like no other sport.

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