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NFL STRIKE: DAY 6 : Players Reaffirm Support for Upshaw, Union

September 28, 1987|MARK HEISLER | Times Staff Writer

Amid reports that he was up to his rank-and-file in dissent, National Football League Players Assn. director Gene Upshaw flew to Los Angeles Sunday and met with some 50 of his members from the Rams, Raiders, San Diego Chargers, San Francisco 49ers, Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks.

The meeting broke up with the players chanting "Unity! Unity! Unity!" so you could say that Upshaw carried the day.

It was no insignificant development. Indeed, there were players muttering about the union's focus on free agency, raising the question of whether Upshaw had broken the cardinal rule of labor organizing by getting too far ahead of his membership.

The Raiders' Matt Millen said he was one of the skeptics. Millen said the Rams were planning to draft a letter to Upshaw, demanding, in Millen's words, that the union "get off free agency."

But by meeting's end, Millen said his questions had been answered, and the Rams' concerns alleviated.

The result?

"It's gonna be a long one," Millen said.

"This is probably the last week we (the Raider strikers) are going to practice. We'll stay here this week and practice and do our share of picketing but after that, the guys will probably start going home."

Had the players been angry going in?

"I'd say the mood going into the meeting, the guys wanted to know some things," Millen said. "They had the same questions the fans have.

"I went in there skeptical. I went in there with notes. I went in there with questions to be answered. And they were. And they weren't answered out of emotion. I'm a pretty level-headed guy and I've never been a big union person but I think what we're doing is right.

"So much of what you read is the way management wants it to come out. When you learn what's going on, the issues that are being addressed and not being addressed . . . "

And how did he know that Upshaw's account is more accurate?

"I raised that question," Millen said. "I asked, 'How am I supposed to know that you're not just telling me something?'

"He said, "You're invited to go in (into negotiations) at any time. If I go home, I'm going to go in."

Before the meeting, Millen, like most of his teammates had been arguing against free agency, on the widely-held players' assumption that owners would never tender offers to the great majority of them.

Afterward?

"Given everything we've heard, it becomes an issue that has to be dealt with," Millen said.

Upshaw's reasoning seems to be that if the union abandons the free-agency plank, the owners will take it as a sign of weakness and refuse to bargain further. Anyway, the great majority of players at Sunday's meeting seem to have gone in to denounce free agency, and everyone came out backing it.

"I think," Upshaw said at a post-meeting press conference, "the players understand now, especially after what we've gone through, that free agency is just as important an issue as pensions.

"I ask players at meetings like this, 'How long would you stay out for pensions? How long would you stay out for all the issues?'

"They say, 'Indefinitely.'

"That's how long they'll stay out for free agency. And I think they understand the whole process a lot better now.

"The reason management left the table, there was one reason and one reason alone--to see if there were any cracks in our armor. There will not be any cracks in our armor. We feel we've done the right things. We feel we have the right issues and we're going to fight for those things. We're not going to be treated as cattle. We're not interchangeable parts. We're human beings.

"I'm very encouraged by this meeting. I'm very encouraged to know the players understand this is a fight and we're going to fight until it's over."

The players present included Kenny Easley from Seattle; Rickey Hunley from Denver; Randy Cross from the 49ers; Garry Anderson from the Chargers; Carl Ekern, Mike Guman, Jackie Slater, Irv Pankey and Steve Dils from the Rams and half the Raider roster, including $50,000-a-week loser Marcus Allen.

Despite all the public protests from Raider players, the Raiders have been one of the most solid striking teams, picketing each day, holding their own team practices. There was a report over the weekend that several Raiders were about to bolt over the line but it was vehemently denied Sunday.

"The reports of our death," guard Charley Hannah said, "are greatly exaggerated."

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