Sources: As labor unrest looms, Upshaw seeks to strengthen his camp

NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw has reached out to former players Trace Armstrong and Robert Smith about rejoining the union in a significant advisory capacity that will strategically fortify his front during unrest within the player ranks and a looming confrontation with NFL owners, sources said Friday.

Armstrong is a past president of the NFLPA and Smith served on the union's executive committee before both players retired.

Armstrong expressed a willingness to accept Upshaw's invitation, which he said would "not be a full-time job, simply make myself available on an as-needed basis."

"Gene and I had a great conversation [Thursday]," said Armstrong. "He's aware of my support for him and the organization. I spent 14 years of my playing career as an active member and officer of the union. So my heart has never left the building and I strongly support the cause of players now and going forward."

Upshaw's moves could create more controversy for the members of the union who want to accelerate a succession plan for Upshaw's eventual departure as its leader, according to player sources. One player noted that outgoing NFLPA president Troy Vincent, who is considered a future candidate for Upshaw's leadership position,
was instrumental in removing Armstrong from the agent-disciplinary committee. Smith was adamant that he was never affected by Vincent's rule as president.

"I want to make it clear that I have no adversarial relationship with Troy Vincent," said Smith. "Nothing really has changed in terms of how I interact with the union."

Matt Stover, player representative for the Baltimore Ravens, had little reaction to Upshaw's plans other than label them "interesting" and reiterated his position that, "I have no intention of ousting Gene prematurely."

Stover sent an e-mail to player reps and the NFLPA executive committee earlier this week that outlined a plan to identify Upshaw's successor. Though Upshaw is not scheduled to leave office at least until the end of 2010, Stover urged his group to name a successor by March 2009.

"I'm not here to oust Gene and I can't emphasize that enough," said Stover. "I simply want to have some urgency to get a process going, plan for a successor and create stable leadership for the union long past the time I'll be playing."

Upshaw has publicly opposed an accelerated succession plan, even though he laid out a process during a conference call among his executive committee and player reps last week. However, when he internally promoted Clark Gaines to assistant executive director on Monday, it created some concern from Stover and other player reps that Upshaw was trying to influence the process.

Upshaw denied he is doing that, saying that anybody "who has carried the title of assistant executive director will tell you they never felt like they were the successor-in-waiting or a true No. 2. Under our constitution I have full authority to hire anybody I want in our building. And with what we're facing on the labor front, we don't need to send a signal to owners that they can get a backdoor deal with a No. 2 guy."

Stover concurred, saying, "We need Gene to be in full authority through the next CBA, even if it means going beyond his current contract. I just think we can have a orderly process that still gets his successor in place without
undermining Gene. That's where my heart is."

Armstrong believes Upshaw wants to surround himself with some "old hands, guys that have been in the fights and have some insight … guys who may be able to explain to player reps how to handle their locker room, because if there is a looming owners' lockout, a strike, a de-certification, whatever, it will be useful because none of these players have ever truly been through it. And that kind of stuff does make players nervous."

Upshaw's primary goal at last month's NFLPA annual meetings was to "educate our committee and reps" about a potential labor battle when owners are expected to exercise an option in November to end the current collective bargaining agreement by 2010. Several player sources said that Upshaw briefed the players about "a new extension, a lockout, a strike and de-certification as a union."

One executive committee member said Upshaw's position is that "a strike doesn't work in the NFL because player careers and earning opportunities are short. But he's fully versed and it was very fruitful for the membership to get educated so that we can educate the players in our locker room."

Chris Mortensen covers the NFL for ESPN.