WASHINGTON - The picture his critics have painted of Gene Upshaw in the last 16 months isn't a pretty one. It's a picture of a let-'em-eat-cake union boss who has grown rich and fat and has turned his back on the former players who helped build the $7 billion-a-year cash cow that is the National Football League.

It's a picture of a man who has done a terrific job of helping line the pockets of today's players, while ignoring the desperate pleas of their down-on-their-luck predecessors.

But how accurate is the picture? If you look at the dramatic improvements in the NFL retirement plan over the last decade-and-a-half, if you look at the new "88 Plan," the NFLPA-league joint effort named after Hall of Fame tight end John Mackey to aid ex-players suffering from dementia, if you look at the recently announced alliance between the league and the union to coordinate medical-support services for former players, that picture appears to be not very accurate.

But that hasn't prevented several ex-players, including Hall of Famers Mike Ditka, Joe DeLamielleure and Harry Carson, from lambasting their fellow Canton enshrinee for allegedly neglecting the game's retired warriors.

"We have been extremely disappointed by the refusal of the NFLPA and its executive director - himself a retired player - to advocate for retired players," Bruce Laird, a former defensive back for the Baltimore Colts and San Diego Chargers and head of the Baltimore chapter of the NFL Retired Players Association, said last week.

"However, we recognize that, as writer Upton Sinclair once said, 'It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.' "

If you think Michael Vick has a public relations problem these days, consider Upshaw, who is blamed for the plight of every ex-player who can't pay his bills or doesn't have proper medical care.

"I played next to a guy who's in a homeless shelter," DeLamielleure, who played 13 seasons for the Buffalo Bills and Cleveland Browns in the 1970s and '80s, said last year. "Our pensions suck, plain and simple."

In February, Ditka saw fit to blame Upshaw and the union for the fact that brain-damaged Hall of Fame center Mike Webster had been homeless before he died 5 years ago in the coronary-care unit of Pittsburgh's Allegheny General Hospital, even though he was receiving $9,000-a-month in disability benefits at the time of his death.

"I can't tell you if Mike Webster would have been alive today or not [with more support from the union]," Ditka said. "But I know he wouldn't have been a damn street person."

Upshaw, who has headed the players association for nearly 24 years, has been reluctant to lash back at his critics, because he knows how it will sound.

"If I speak the truth, I'm portrayed as a guy who isn't sympathetic, who has a million-dollar job and just cares about himself," he said this week during a 75-minute interview with the Daily News.

The truth, Upshaw insists, is that he always has looked out for the welfare of retired players. The truth, he insists, is that thanks to the improvements in pension benefits in the last four labor extensions, many retired players make more today than they did as players.

"Some of these [retired] guys have claimed that no one's representing them," Upshaw said. "That's crazy. We've always represented them. I'm the only one at the bargaining table who represents those retired players.

"When I go in [to negotiate a new CBA], I've got to fight for our 60 percent [the players' cut of the league revenue]. When I fight for the 60 percent, I'm also fighting for their piece. Because their piece has to come out of our piece. That's the only place it's going to come from."

Upshaw came off considerably less sympathetic of his fellow ex-players 16 months ago in a Charlotte Observer story in which 13 Hall of Famers, including DeLamielleure, claimed that the league and the players association weren't doing enough to help retirees.

"The bottom line is I don't work for them," Upshaw told the Observer. "They don't hire me and they can't fire me. They can complain about me all day long. They can have their opinion. But the active players have the vote. That's who pays my salary."

That comment, which Upshaw now says was taken out of context, became the accelerant that turned a small brush fire into today's five-alarm blaze.

"The writer called me and said he had this quote from DeLamielleure, who says I don't do anything for retired players and every retired player ought to get up every day and try to get me fired," Upshaw said. "I said, 'You can tell Joe DeLamielleure he didn't hire me, he can't fire me and I don't work for him.' But that's not the way it came out.

"I told DeLamielleure the same thing to his face last year at the Hall of Fame [inductions] with all of the guys in the room. Because they know my record. They know it's not true [that he isn't an advocate for retired players]. You can't go back anywhere and find one instance where I've turned my back on [retired players].

"I know what we've done [for retirees]. If I didn't have a record to stand on, if I didn't have the history to look back at and know what we've accomplished and how difficult it was to get, maybe I would be overwhelmed [by the criticism]."

Any NFL retirees who have something to tell Upshaw have their chance today in Atlanta, where he is scheduled to speak at the annual convention of the NFL Retired Players Association. But most of his loudest critics, including Ditka, DeLamielleure and Carson, who last week called Upshaw "irrelevant," aren't expected to be there.

"I don't expect to be received any differently than I have been in the past," Upshaw said. "My record is what is. I can't change it.

"I'm not going to be defensive. I don't have anything to be defensive about. That's exactly what I told those guys at the Hall of Fame last year. I told them I'm not one to turn the other cheek. You're not going to hit me in the nose and I'm going to sit there and smile.

"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."

What really eats at Upshaw is that many of the ex-players who criticize him did little to support the players union in its early battles with NFL owners for fair wages and benefits.

When Upshaw took over the NFLPA in June 1983, it was coming off a failed 57-day strike the previous season and was more than $4 million in debt. Now, it has more than $220 million in cash and assets. The average player salary has risen from $120,000 to $1.6 million under his watch. According to the NFLPA, the players' Retirement Plan has assets of about $1 billion.

"The guys that are criticizing didn't help build this organization," Upshaw said. "They didn't help fight for these benefits that the players have, and didn't help fight for the improvements that are there. If you look back at the struggle and the fight, you don't see those guys.

"When I think back to the '70s when [the NFLPA] was starting, what we did and what we fought for, we couldn't get the [player] support. We couldn't get the support to fight for pensions. When we went to court in '74, I saw guys cross the picket line when I was standing on it."

Upshaw has negotiated pension increases for retired players in each of the last four collective bargaining agreements. The benefit credit per season for players who played in the league before 1970 has nearly quadrupled in the last 13 years.

"Look around the country," Upshaw said. "Talk to your [Newspaper] Guild. There aren't too many unions that improve the [pension] benefits for guys already retired. They're not going to do it. But we've been doing it every time we sit down at the bargaining table."

But with the NFL rolling in dough - its projected revenue number for 2007 is $7.1 billion - many retired players want to know why they can't have more. Monthly benefit credits for each season played range from $250 through 1981 to $470 per season for current players.

"Some guys want to know why they can't get the same pension as the active players," Upshaw said. "They want to know why we can't just do that. Well, for starters, because it would cost us $1 billion.

"They say, 'Well, you've got all this money in the pension plan.' Yeah. But when a guy knocks on the door 10 years from now [for his pension], I want to make sure he's got it. I don't want to be like United Air Lines or some of these other big corporations where the pension plan is gone. We're not going to do that.

"I look at the [player] revenue. I look at where we are. What I have to do is balance that between making sure the active players get their fair share and also taking a piece of that [revenue] and putting it away for retired players."

Upshaw said many retirees criticizing the plan started drawing their pensions too early and now are staring at much smaller monthly checks than they would have received had they waited until age 55.

DeLamielleure, who played in the NFL from 1973 through 1985, would collect $3,200 a month if he didn't touch it until 55. But he started drawing on it 10 years ago, when he was 45, and receives less than a third of that amount.

To prevent players from gutting their pension plan, Upshaw and the union insisted on changes to the retirement plan in the 1993 CBA that prevent players from touching their pensions until they turned 55.

"We did it to protect the players," he said. "You used to be able to draw 25 percent [of your pension] up front and take the Social Security option. We took all of that away. Guys today will never, ever have those issues.

"If you're a 10-year player today, and you do the maximum on your 401(k) and leave your pension in there until age 65, you can leave the game with [a pension of] $800,000 a year. If you play 5 years, it's half of that. We've protected them, so that they'll have that in place."

Major League Baseball, whose pension plan is considered the gold standard in professional sports, doesn't allow retired players to take their pension until age 62.

"If our pension plan were like baseball's, where you couldn't start drawing it until 62, it'd be a different story; it'd not be the same story," Upshaw said. "If you look at a guy like Ditka [who played from 1961 through 1972] who left his pension [untouched], Mike's pension is about $7,600 to $7,800 a month."

While Upshaw defends the NFL's pension plan with religious fervor, he acknowledges that there are problems with the other main component to the NFL Retirement Plan - disability.

According to league figures, only 284 former players received disability payments last year, totaling almost $20 million. That's a small number for a sport that wreaks as much havoc on the body as football.

The disability application process can take up to 2 years, with players shuttled to several doctors before a decision is rendered.

"There's a lot of red tape, a lot of delays," Upshaw said. "That's one of the things [NFL commissioner] Roger [Goodell] and I will be working very closely on.

"What we want to do is look at the Social Security standards [for disability]. If Social Security says a player can't work, we should automatically approve him right away. We shouldn't have to have him go through all this other crap."

Disability judgments are made by the plan's six trustees - three management representatives (Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill, Chiefs owner Clark Hunt and Ravens president Dick Cass) and three player representatives (former players Tom Condon, Jeff Van Note and Dave Duerson). But the board essentially must rely on the binding opinion of a physician agreed to by both sides.

Upshaw said the league clearly is inclined to reject most disability applicants.

"We [the three player trustees] believe it's our job to get a guy his benefits," Upshaw said. "But [the owners] don't feel the same way in a lot of cases. And I'm not talking about the three trustees. Where it really comes from is the advisers. The advisers don't want to set a precedent where we open the floodgates. They look for every reason [to reject players].

"It's always been a fight, always been a struggle, to add people to disability. It's very easy to see why the players get frustrated about this."

The league disputed Upshaw's contention that it is the reason many players are turned down for disability benefits. Spokesman Greg Aiello pointed out that all disability rulings must be unanimous or else they go to an independent arbitrator. He said only one disability case has been sent to an arbitrator in the last 14 years.

"We find Gene's statement a little puzzling," Aiello said.

The "88 Plan," which provides $88,000 a year for nursing or day care for ex-players with dementia or Alzheimer's disease or $50,000 a year for home care, appears to be going much more smoothly.

Since the plan - approved as part of the bargaining agreement last year - went into effect in February, 54 players have applied for assistance and 35 have been approved. The union is trying to identify as many candidates as possible and get applications to them or their family.

"I looked at all the names [of applicants] and put a red check mark by all of the guys that I played with or who coached me," Upshaw said. "It's a disturbing number.

"Are their conditions caused by concussions they suffered when they were playing? I'll let the medical guys make that determination. A lot of the guys are up in age. Maybe the head blows bring it on faster. But it also could be a matter of age. I don't know." *