An effort to oust Gene Upshaw as the NFL Players Association Executive Director became evident Monday, when veteran Baltimore Ravens kicker Matt Stover e-mailed a plan to fellow player representatives to have a new union boss in place by March 2009.
In his e-mail, a copy of which has been obtained by ESPN, Stover revealed a conference call among player reps last week about which he said, "I was on that conference call and I am not the only rep who listened and felt that it is time for a change."
Upshaw said Tuesday morning that he was aware of Stover's e-mail but read it for the first time when ESPN forwarded him a copy. Upshaw's contract runs through 2010, but he said Tuesday he told player representatives at their annual meeting in Maui in March that with a looming labor confrontation with NFL owners, "I would never leave until this deal is done."
Tuesday, Upshaw said, "Obviously, there's a group that feels we need to have a change now."
As for Stover's e-mail, Upshaw said Tuesday: "Matt Stover has no clue. Whoever is pulling his chain is doing a disservice to the union. I could understand the idea that they need to get rid of me if I wasn't doing a good job but, shoot, the owners are mad because they think I've done too good of a job."
Upshaw confirmed that hints of a movement ultimately to change the union leadership were in play at the March meetings in Maui. An effort by one coalition of players to get Philadelphia Eagles safety Brian Dawkins elected as the new NFL Players Association president fell short when Tennessee Titans center Kevin Mawae was voted as its new active-players leader, according to player sources. Mawae is believed to be a supporter of Upshaw.
"Matt Stover's letter does not reflect the view of the entire executive committee or the board of player representatives," he said in a statement issued by the union. "The board is in the process of preparing for the possibility of a work stoppage and understands the importance of having Gene, with his experience and history, lead the direction of the NFLPA."
Dawkins, a member of the players union's executive committee, had the backing of former NFLPA president Troy Vincent, who was no longer eligible for the position because he was not an active player. Several player sources have said Vincent is regarded as a political force within the ranks of the players and desires to replace Upshaw one day.
"I can't speak for Matt Stover and I don't know if there's a primary complaint about Gene's leadership," Dawkins said, "but look at it from this viewpoint, that in any business situation where leadership change is inevitable, there has to be an orderly process.
"Even just speaking as a veteran football player, it would be foolish for the Eagles not to have someone in place to eventually replace me as a safety. I may not be comfortable as far as thinking about that reality but you have to look ahead. It's crazy for us, as a union, not to start a process that can identify a great leader to eventually take over for Gene."
There has been no specific reason cited for the latest move to oust Upshaw.
Two union sources say that Stover objected strongly to the amount of Upshaw's latest contract, which called for $24 million in salary over six years.
Vincent denied that he was a political force in the movement.
"If you can find one player rep or executive committee member [to] tell you on the record that I was [politicking] behind the scenes in Maui last month, then I'd be shocked and I'd be a liar," said Vincent.
"It's true that Brian Dawkins is a dear friend but you have to let the process take place and Kevin [Mawae] was elected. I think an open and transparent process is what's healthy for the union and that's what happened. I would never compromise the integrity of that process and I would never undermine Gene. I don't like the idea of having to defend myself because I have nothing to defend."
Asked if he aspired to be Upshaw's successor, Vincent said, "I don't aspire to it. I have had a great life on the field and off it. At the same time, if the committee ever believes I'm a viable candidate, at that point and only at that point would I sit down to have a discussion."
At least one high-ranking player in the NFLPA is on board with Stover's movement.
"I completely support Matt Stover," Denver Broncos defensive back Domonique Foxworth told ESPN.com's Bill Williamson. "Matt is not alone is in his feelings. I know there are a lot of players who feel the same way that he does and I am sure he felt out a few players before making this step. He takes it serious."
Foxworth, who is a newly elected member of the NFLPA's executive committee, pointed out that Stover's movement is primarily a proposal to give players options and to give another candidate the opportunity to challenge Upshaw.
"I support Matt for this because he is trying to give the players options," Foxworth continued. "I'm not necessarily saying Gene will be out of office or that he should be out of office, but the key here is that the players stay unified and the best way of doing that is giving them all a chance to have a say in who our executive director is."
Overall, Foxworth said Upshaw has been an asset to the union.
"It's sad, because Gene has done a great job over the years," Foxworth said. "But sometimes, things come to an end, and this move may be the beginning of that."
In a statement released by the Ravens on Tuesday afternoon, Stover said he preferred to handle the matter privately.
"I'm going to respect the process of our union leadership, executive committee and player reps. I choose to handle this matter privately. It was certainly not my intention for my private e-mail to a select group to become public."
Chris Mortensen covers the NFL for ESPN. Bill Williamson covers the NFL for ESPN.com.