The simmering feud between the NFL Players Association and retired players boiled over when Gene Upshaw, the union's executive director, made threatening comments about one of his most vocal critics.
Speaking about Hall of Fame guard Joe DeLamielleure in an interview with the Philadelphia Daily News last week, Upshaw said: "A guy like DeLamielleure says the things he said about me; you think I'm going to invite him to dinner? No. I'm going to break his ... damn neck."
Upshaw's outburst comes at a time when the NFL's image has been tarnished by repeated player arrests in the past year.
Commissioner Roger Goodell didn't speak directly about Upshaw's remarks during a visit to Charlotte, N.C., for a luncheon honoring Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson yesterday. But he clearly resented the latest firestorm in the league's relationship with its former players.
"Retired players are important to us," he told the Associated Press. "They helped us build the game. I don't think anybody I know has done more for retired players, or players in general, than Gene Upshaw.
"I think it's unfortunate this kind of thing is going on. I think that's the reason Gene and I have talked about forming this alliance where we can address these issues in a responsible fashion. I don't think it's helpful, but I understand it's an emotional issue."
DeLamielleure, who has criticized the union's pension and disability plans under Upshaw, said he takes the threat seriously, as does his wife, Gerri.
"A physical threat from a man in that position? I'm worried," Gerri DeLamielleure said. "When I can't get Joe on his cell phone, I'm real upset."
The DeLamielleures live in Charlotte, but when Gerri was unable to reach Joe for several hours when he made a trip to Buffalo recently, she feared for his safety.
"Of course Gene Upshaw was in the back of my mind," she said. "This was before any threat was ever made. You have to take something like that very seriously. It's very worrisome to me."
She isn't the only one. Bernie Parrish, a former union leader in the league who has sued the NFL's Players' Inc. over distribution of funds, said he considers Upshaw a "dangerous man."
"Running off at the mouth, threatening to break Joe D's neck, is an exposure of what he is like," Parrish said.
Parrish said he is concerned for the safety not only of DeLamielleure, but Bruce Laird, the president of the Baltimore Colts' alumni chapter of retired players.
"I think maybe [Upshaw] is getting a little desperate," Parrish said.
Although Upshaw's union has gotten pension increases for retired players in each of the previous four bargaining agreements, retired players average about $13,000 a year in benefits and feel they should be entitled to more given the NFL's nearly $7 billion in revenues.
"We have the worst pensions in sports with the best league," DeLamielleure said. "And the owners have given more than enough. The two owners I played for, Mr. [Art] Modell and Mr. [Ralph] Wilson are the best people I know. The owners give up 60 percent [of total revenue] and [the union] can't give retired guys more than $13,000?"
Laird, another critic of Upshaw, said Goodell's recent decision to create an alliance of NFL entities was the strongest statement about the retired players' lack of representation.
"My hope has always been to have true democratic representation in the union," Laird said. "But it's obvious to all of us ... that retired players have no place and no representation in the NFLPA.
"Even now, if I knew that Gene Upshaw would represent all players and have democratic elections and we would be part of the union and work with active players, I feel we have no interest in working with a gentleman of Gene Upshaw's morality. He is a nonentity. ... He means nothing to retired players."
DeLamielleure, a father of six, said he thought the threat was at least part intimidation.
"I do believe that Upshaw thought long and hard before he said that," DeLamielleure said. "There's no doubt in my mind. He thought, 'I can intimidate this guy.'
"It's really ugly, what's going on today. I feel bad for Goodell. He walked into a hornet's nest. He's got all these [player] arrests that he's got to get under control, and the guy who leads these men makes a threat like a gangster, like a thug."