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Royal sides with Upshaw in dispute

Tight end Robert Royal is entering his sixth NFL season, his second with the Buffalo Bills. Retirement is still a few years away, but given the physical demands of his sport he hopes to leave the game in one piece.

Even if he doesn't, he's confident the players union will make sure he'll be taken care of when his playing days are over.

A number of ex-players would dispute that.

Former Bills guard Joe DeLamielleure as well as other former NFL greats like Mike Ditka, Harry Carson and Jerry Kramer believe the NFL Players Association and its executive director, Gene Upshaw, aren't doing enough to financially assist needy retired players.

Royal, the Bills' union representative, said the criticism of Upshaw is out of bounds.

"I'm for Gene," Royal said Wednesday after a practice at Ralph Wilson Stadium. "I'm a part of the union and I stand by him 100 percent because I know the things that we have given back as active players to help the retired players out.

"There are some things the retired players feel like we're not doing as a union. It's unfortunate, but hopefully we can smooth it out and move forward."

DeLamielleure is one of Upshaw's most outspoken critics and their feud escalated recently when Upshaw reportedly said he was going to break DeLamielleure's neck.

Royal and other Bills players thought Upshaw's threatening comments were inappropriate, but they continue to support the union chief.

"Unfortunately the comment was made," Royal said. "It shouldn't have been made. I know Gene. He's a great man of high character and obviously he probably wants to take back those comments that he made."

Royal said Upshaw has done a lot for current and former players since taking over the NFLPA in June 1983.

The average player salary has risen from $120,000 to $1.6 million and Upshaw has negotiated pension increases for retired players in each of the last four collective bargaining agreements.

Retired players average about $13,000 a year in benefits, DeLamielleure feel some retired players don't have enough money to cover medical and living expenses. He and other retirees are entitled to more since the union will get 60 percent of the NFL's projected $7 billion in revenues this year.

Royal countered by pointing out the benefits retired players get now are much better than what they used to receive. He indicated that active players have contributed $50 million to the retirement fund this year.

The NFLPA has also entered into joint ventures with the league, forming the "88 Plan," named after Hall of Fame tight end John Mackey, to aid ex-players suffering from dementia, and announced plans to coordinate medical-support services for former players.

"We care about the retired players," Royal said. "We love them a lot. We want them around the game. They're good for the game. Hopefully we can put this behind us and move forward from it.

"Whatever it takes to help the retired players we're going to do it and so far Gene and everybody else in the players union has done a great job of giving back to them."

e-mail: awilson@buffnews.com

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