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SBJ/July 31 - August 6, 2006/Paul Tagliabues 17 Years At The Helm
The end of his era
Published July 31, 2006
No one has ever had a better idea of what he was getting himself into than Paul Tagliabue.
|The NFL has experienced phenomenal success, and a few sticky challenges, during Paul Tagliabue’s
17-year tenure. But comparing then, back in 1989, with now truly shows how and where the
league has flourished.
As prepared as he was, though, even Tagliabue couldn’t foresee all of the challenges and opportunities he would face over the next 17 years. From labor deals to stadium construction, from the onset of the Internet and other new media to launching a league-owned television network, from international opportunities to national disasters, he faced problems and possibilities that his predecessor never dreamed of.
That he was so successful is the result not only of the talents and strengths he brought to the job, but the differences between him and the man he followed, differences that were perhaps most evident when he faced the two monumental challenges that most clearly define his legacy — forging labor peace and reacting to the nightmare of 9/11.
Those who have known and worked with Tagliabue for years say he brought a unique set of skills to the job. It started with sheer brain power — many people start their description of him with the word “brilliant” — but it went much further than that. He is insatiably curious about the world around him, they say, and he brings a broad range of knowledge to bear on any problem. He meets challenges calmly, soliciting opinions, analyzing options and then quickly making a decision.
And, besides all that, he was willing to grow into the job.
“It began with his being an astute lawyer,” said David Stern, Tagliabue’s counterpart at the NBA, “but it morphed into his understanding the dynamics of leadership.”
Given his interest in sports, it may not be surprising that Tagliabue ended up at the NFL. But even early on, while he was playing basketball on a scholarship at Georgetown University, he was interested in a much larger world.
He followed Georgetown with New York University law school, then worked briefly as a policy analyst in the Defense Department before joining Washington law firm Covington & Burling, the NFL’s principal outside counsel.
He got his first taste of the NFL in 1969, when the league was in the process of merging with the American Football League and launching “Monday Night Football.” Tagliabue’s first job with the league was to help figure out how to handle Joe Namath’s involvement in the New York nightclub Bachelors III, which was under investigation for possible gambling ties. (Rozelle eventually convinced Namath, who had threatened to retire over the issue, to sell his stake in the club.)
It was about 15 years later, sometime in the early ’80s, that Tagliabue first met Gene Upshaw, the man who eventually would run the NFL Players Association and partner with Tagliabue in crafting the league’s long-lasting labor peace.
Their first meeting was inconsequential, Upshaw said. Tagliabue was just a lawyer working for the league, and Upshaw was still a future Hall of Fame offensive guard for the Oakland Raiders. But after retiring from play in 1983, Upshaw became president of the players union, setting the stage for his relationship with the future commissioner.
|Finding common ground with players union head Gene Upshaw has helped define Tagliabue’s success as commissioner.|
“Back then, there was so much hatred — and that’s the right word — between the players association and the NFL that we were always looking for a friendly face,” Upshaw said. “Through a number of years, Paul’s was one of the only ones.”
When Tagliabue became commissioner in 1989, the league was structured in such a way as to keep the commissioner at arm’s length from the labor negotiating table. Relations with the union were handled by the NFL’s management council, a group of owners and team executives who had a separate office down the street from league headquarters.
Pete Rozelle, for all his creativity and charisma as leader of the NFL for almost 30 years, was considered by the union to be little more than a figurehead, because, Upshaw said, “he just couldn’t get anything done with labor.”
“He tried to,” Upshaw added, “but nothing ever happened because everyone knew that he didn’t have the authority to do it, and we reminded him of that every opportunity we had.”
What that left was “a relationship that was abysmal,” said Jeffrey Kessler, a labor attorney who has worked with many sports unions.
“That [management] committee was hostile to the players,” Kessler said. “It was characterized by the famous comments of one member that the players were like cattle, and could be treated as such.” (In his book, “America’s Game,” Michael MacCambridge wrote that Dallas Cowboys executive Tex Schramm’s exact quote, after telling Upshaw that the union would never get free agency, was: “Don’t you get it? You’re the cattle, we’re the ranchers!”)
Tagliabue immediately changed the structure.
“What Paul did,” said Norman Braman, who at the time owned the Philadelphia Eagles, “was consolidate the decision-making to the commissioner’s office, where Rozelle always felt the commissioner should stay out of it.”
|Securing a salary cap was one of Tagliabue’s biggest victories, says the Packers’ Bob Harlan.|
“Tagliabue centralized control of the whole league in every aspect,” Braman said. “He built a very large bureaucracy. It was the antithesis of Rozelle.”
Even with all of the power concentrated in his office, though, Tagliabue wasn’t able to strike a long-term deal with Upshaw for more than three years, after a lawsuit filed in the name of New York Jets running back Freeman McNeil went to trial. In late 1992, a jury decided that the NFL was violating antitrust laws by being too restrictive on free agency. That sent Upshaw and Tagliabue back to the table, where they had soon hammered out a deal that made no one entirely happy. It included both free agency and something of utmost importance to the owners: a salary cap.
“Total free agency without a cap would have been devastating,” said Bob Harlan, CEO of the Green Bay Packers. “I kept hearing from folks in the early ’90s who told me there’s no way in the world you are going to get a salary cap. When we did, I can still remember going up to Paul after the meeting and saying, ‘Thank you so much. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it.’ And I meant it.”
The peace has lasted, though with some stress and strain, ever since. And with the latest deal signed last March in Dallas, it will hold for at least four more years.
But all of the praise that Tagliabue receives for helping orchestrate labor peace is tempered somewhat by reaction to the latest deal, which in every respect was a move toward positions held by the players association. The players had wanted to change the structure of the agreement so that they got a percentage of total league revenue, rather than just a percentage of what was called “designated gross revenue.” They got it. The players wanted to force the owners into a much broader revenue-sharing agreement than the one that was in place before. They got that, too.
In fact, much of the praise Tagliabue gets with regard to the latest deal focuses on how he forced the owners to recognize the dire consequences that might result if they didn’t agree to the union’s final offer, an offer Upshaw gave Tagliabue just before getting on a plane to Hawaii that would keep him out of touch until the deadline for a deal had expired.
He did it by arguing and cajoling, adjourning the meeting, which was held in a Dallas hotel, every little while to take another group of owners aside to twist their arms.
“You had a group of high-revenue clubs that felt one way, and a group of low-revenue clubs that felt the other way, and to find a meeting ground for those teams was an enormous challenge,” Harlan said. “It took a lot of, ‘Let’s break for a few minutes and talk about this,’ and he would take a group into a back room, but he did get it done.”
People who have worked with Tagliabue say that his ability to get a group of people who have different goals to move in one direction has a lot to do with the fact that he makes people face the potential consequences of their actions.
“He handles challenges in an analytical fashion,” said Chris Russo, former head of the NFL’s new media ventures. “He forces you to get the facts, understand the issues and make a deliberate, intelligent decision based on being rational about what the options are.”
The meeting at which the deal was made ended a yearlong fight among the owners over whether and how to increase their revenue sharing. It was a move that was demanded by the union, and one that Kessler thought made it much harder for the owners to come together on a deal.
Marc Ganis, president of SportsCorp Ltd., agreed that the fight over revenue sharing likely emboldened the union.
“They dealt with revenue-sharing issues so publicly and had so much disagreement among the owners that the players association was able to use that disharmony, that weakness in the solidarity of the owners,” Ganis said. “Ultimately, Paul did get consensus. That’s why they have a deal. But he wasn’t able to get it before the take-it-or-leave-it deal was offered by the players.”
It was a bitter and tiring fight, one that Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen believes contributed to Tagliabue announcing his retirement just 12 days after the meeting.
“I think Paul might have lasted a few more years had that not been the monumental task that it was,” Bowlen said. “By the time that was done, I think he was done. I think he had accomplished all that he felt he could accomplish.”
“I think we have a real challenge ahead of us with the current agreement,” New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft said. “I think a lot of people, including ourselves, really made a contract beyond where we thought it was in our self-interests.”
Whether that escape clause is used, though, will depend in large part on the strengths and philosophy of the new commissioner. Until he finds out who that is, Upshaw is sleeping a little less easily than he has for the last 17 years.
“The one thing you worry about is going back to the days before Paul was commissioner,” Upshaw said. “You don’t want to go there. That’s a dark, deep hole.”
Shortly after Russo was hired by the league in 1999, he took a trip with Tagliabue to Silicon Valley, where they spent four days meeting with CEOs of the major high-tech companies headquartered there.
“What was so striking about that was that the commissioner was able not only to understand it, but to have a vision about it,” Russo said. “He’s able to really quickly understand the issues surrounding a whole range of businesses, and really home in on where the NFL should be and how the NFL can be a leader in those places.”
It was that vision, and a willingness to try new things, that led to all of the new platforms the league has gotten involved in over the last 15 years, Russo said, from the Internet to DirecTV’s Sunday Ticket to the NFL Network.
“One of his legacies is his vision in the media space,” Russo said. “The commissioner was a leading force in all of that.”
Don Garber knows firsthand how quickly Tagliabue reacts to an opportunity. Garber, now commissioner of Major League Soccer, was with NFL Properties when Tagliabue became commissioner in 1989. Garber was part of a group that was trying to figure out how to keep fans happy at the league’s second cold-weather Super Bowl, the 1992 game in Minneapolis. “We were concerned that there would be a lot of people standing around freezing outside the stadium,” he said.
The idea they came up with was for a fan festival, the NFL Experience.
“I remember pitching Paul as to the merits of the plan,” Garber said. “He has this amazing ability to see an opportunity and not spend a whole lot of time thinking about it. He saw that it made sense, green-lighted it, and helped us get it paid for and get it developed in a way that I think has helped the Super Bowl become more popular and engaging to fans.”
|Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson accepts the ball before the team’s inaugural game in 1995.|
“He always had a very good handle on what he thought things would look like five or 10 years down the road,” Steeg said. “Sometimes you didn’t get it, the direction he wanted to go, until five years passed, and then you understood where you got yourself to.”
Steeg also had a close-up view of the way Tagliabue handles a crisis.
About the same time that Tagliabue first stepped into the commissioner’s job, voters in Arizona were defeating a referendum that would have recognized Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a state holiday. That was trouble for the league, which a few years earlier had awarded Phoenix the 1993 Super Bowl after being assured by organizers and politicians in the state that the referendum would pass.
Immediately, Tagliabue was peppered with questions from both inside and outside the league offices, the main one being: How could a league with so many black players and coaches partner with a state that refused to honor one of the most important black leaders in history?
At their next meeting, the owners, on Tagliabue’s recommendation, took the game away from Phoenix and gave it to Pasadena.
For Tagliabue, Steeg said, it was important “to make a stand on where you are as far as relationships and where the line is between when the league is a social conscience and when it’s not.”
That social conscience was tested again less than a year later. In January of 1991, after a lengthy buildup, U.S. forces entered Kuwait to fight the first Gulf War.
“We had all sorts of issues with that,” Steeg said, “starting off with whether we should play the game.”
The game did go on, but Tagliabue canceled the annual commissioner’s party, saying that he didn’t think it was an appropriate celebration for wartime. And ABC, after consulting with Tagliabue, didn’t broadcast the Super Bowl halftime show, instead breaking away for news.
Tagliabue was very firm in his decision-making, Steeg said, understanding that “the Super Bowl is more than just a football game. It’s a phenomenon for the country.”
On Sept. 13, 2001, the sports world was looking for a leader.
Terrorists had attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon two days earlier, and with a nation in turmoil, planes grounded across the country and people living in fear of another attack, Paul Tagliabue was trying to figure out the right thing to do.
The league had done just that — played its games as scheduled — in 1963, after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Pete Rozelle had thought the NFL could help the nation heal if it carried on with business as usual. He almost immediately regretted his decision.
Tagliabue did what he always does in a crisis. First he listened, then he decided.
During a conference call with owners, according to MacCambridge in “America’s Game,” Tagliabue said, “This is not the Kennedy assassination. This is not Pearl Harbor. It’s worse.”
Early on Thursday morning, Sept. 13, NFL teams were notified of his decision: No games would be played that weekend. The rest of the sports world quickly fell in line behind his decision.
Tagliabue, Garber said, realized that his role was to do more than just be commissioner of a league, but to lead “a sport that had a capability of influencing our society and culture.”
|Tagliabue’s prompt and definitive decision concerning 9/11 helped define his leadership.|
The reaction to Tagliabue’s decision was almost universally favorable, with many people drawing comparisons between his actions and Rozelle’s.
“Pete Rozelle always said his response to the assassination of JFK was his worst moment,” said David Baker, commissioner of the Arena Football League. “I think Tagliabue’s finest moment was not only when they did not play on the Sunday following the attacks, but that when they did resume play, it was done in such a way that it was a healing process for the country.”
The NFL’s owners, even those who initially had wanted to play the games as scheduled, united behind their commissioner.
“Where some people, maybe me included, would have been more reticent to cancel games, it was without question the right thing to do,” Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt said. “We realized that right after Paul made the decision. As everybody became more aware of the situation, we realized it was even worse than we had imagined when we first heard about it.”
Art Modell, then owner of the Baltimore Ravens, told The New York Times, “This was our commissioner’s finest hour.”
Many of the lessons learned after 9/11 and in previous crises were recalled by Tagliabue and the owners when disaster struck last year along the Gulf Coast. After Hurricane Katrina decimated hundreds of miles of coastal land in Louisiana and Mississippi, many people doubted whether the NFL would ever play again in New Orleans.
Once again, Kraft said, the league needed to show that it was concerned about more than just the game and the business.
“The trips Paul made there, and the leadership he showed to help stabilize and keep the franchise there, was very important,” Kraft said.
Soon after the storm, some people in New Orleans criticized both the Saints and the league, believing that they should have made a strong commitment to the city immediately after the hurricane. They were frustrated by hints that owner Tom Benson might move his team to San Antonio, where it had played some of its home games last season. On Jan. 11, though, Tagliabue and Benson appeared together to declare what Tagliabue said was an “unequivocal” commitment to play in the Superdome during the 2006 season.
By March, when Tagliabue announced his retirement, he was so highly regarded in New Orleans that the daily newspaper, the Times-Picayune, ran a story about him under the headline, “Tagliabue a true friend to N.O. in tough times.” Tagliabue recently made his sixth trip to the area, to check on progress at the Superdome and, more importantly, reiterate the NFL’s support for the area.
George Bodenheimer, president of ESPN/ABC Sports, believes Tagliabue’s response to Katrina is a defining moment for the commissioner. Not only did the commissioner support the city in big, highly visible ways, such as declaring that the Saints would return for the 2006 season, and even planning an owners meeting there for the fall. Bodenheimer recalled the night of Sept. 19, 2005, during an ABC/ESPN doubleheader in which the network hosted a telethon to benefit hurricane victims. Tagliabue showed up at the beginning of the telethon and stayed through to the end. “He manned the phones and was working alongside everybody else,” Bodenheimer said. “We were there until we went off the air. I’ll always remember that. He’s committed.”
With the support of the league, including the owners committing $20 million to help rebuild the Superdome, Kraft is hopeful that when the Saints play again, they’ll show that the NFL under Tagliabue has done the right thing.
“We were fortunate enough to win the Super Bowl after 9/11,” Kraft said, “and I remember how a million and a half people came together in the streets. I think that same kind of thing could happen down in New Orleans. I sure hope it does.”
It’s never easy to predict how history will judge a person’s legacy. Rozelle, despite his failure on the labor issue and his misstep after Kennedy’s death, is still judged by most people to be the top sports commissioner of all time.
Tagliabue’s legacy, too, may be tainted by the big project he couldn’t finish — getting an NFL team back to Los Angeles. And if the owners decide in a few years to take a hard line against the players, sending the game into a work stoppage, Tagliabue may be in for some belated criticism for letting the players push the league too far.
For now, though, after almost two decades in which he led the NFL to record revenue and growth in franchise values, you can color his legacy a nice, shiny shade of gold.
“I don’t think any of us could have expected any more out of him,” Bowlen said. “There was no question in my mind that we got 110 percent out of Paul Tagliabue as commissioner of the National Football League.”
Carmen Policy, previously an executive with both the San Francisco 49ers and the Cleveland Browns, said the Paul Tagliabue who is getting ready to retire is far different from the man who took the commissioner’s job in 1989.
“After he became commissioner, it’s like he grew in leaps and bounds,” Policy said. “He had a global vision, but unlike dreamers and people who can see beyond the horizon, he was also able to effectively engage in down-to-earth, day-to-day implementation. I think, just recently, a lot of people, including even some owners in the NFL, are starting to understand the wonderful spectacle of talent and leadership and vision that this guy brought to the job.”
Staff writer John Ourand contributed to this story.