SBJ/May 21-27, 2012/Opinion

‘Humble’ leader Paul Tagliabue to be honored by SBJ/SBD

SportsBusiness Journal/Daily will present our fifth annual Sports Business Awards on Wednesday evening at the New York Marriott Marquis at Times Square. The event continues to grow, and we’re expecting more than 725 people at what is becoming one of the top industry get-togethers.

During the evening, we will present our Lifetime Achievement Award to Paul Tagliabue, who will join previous recipients Peter Ueberroth and Billie Jean King. Tagliabue richly deserves this honor as he has spent his adult life dedicated to, and improving, the business of sports. He is best known for his 17 years of strong leadership as commissioner of the NFL, but he also led an advisory group that played a critical role in reshaping the U.S. Olympic Committee.

After leaving the NFL in 2006, Tagliabue helped reshape the U.S. Olympic Committee.
Photo by: ICON SMI
At the NFL, the Tagliabue legacy is overflowing with accomplishments, all of which were well-documented in Ross Nethery’s excellent profile of his tenure in the July 31, 2006, issue of SportsBusiness Journal. Among them: uninterrupted labor peace, significant stadium development, expansion, the introduction of free agency, massive television deals, new media initiatives, a network and leadership of a league that set the tone for U.S. sports.

We have never announced our Lifetime Achievement Award winners prior to the ceremony, but we had a change of heart this year when it came to Tagliabue, believing that he deserved to be honored in front of the many who admire and respect him. We told NFL team owners and former colleagues of this tribute, and the common refrain was, “It’s about time.”

Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, who was brought into the league during Tagliabue’s tenure, plans to be with him Wednesday in New York. He told us the honor and spotlight are long overdue. “Paul did not seek recognition and gladly gave credit to others,” Richardson said.

Green Bay Packers President and CEO Mark Murphy, whose relationship with Tagliabue goes back more than 30 years, said he was thrilled that Tagliabue was getting this recognition. “He’s very, very humble. It was never about Paul. He never got a lot of publicity. But his impact and what he accomplished is truly remarkable,” Murphy said.

Recently in New York City, I caught up with the former president and CEO of the San Francisco 49ers and Cleveland Browns, Carmen Policy, who practically jumped out of his chair when reflecting on Tagliabue, praising his “dignity” and “integrity.”

“I’m not trying to be over-dramatic, but I always saw him as being a bit Lincoln-esque,” he said. “He never looked happy or joyful. He was bright as hell, wickedly smart, dedicated and on a mission.” He cited Tagliabue’s long-standing pursuit for increasing minority representation in the NFL — “You knew that when an issue was important to Paul, he would be relentless” — and his strong relationship with former NFLPA Executive Director Gene Upshaw as two hallmarks of his legacy.

“I really admired the relationship that he and Gene built,” Policy said. “It was not only based on mutual respect, but on both of them feeling that they had been handed a very sacred responsibility: to maintain the integrity of the game. That caused them to rise above the partisanship that accompanies their role. Their work really created tremendous growth for the NFL. Statesmanship was truly shown by these men.”

Two instances stand out for me with Tagliabue, and both reflect a quiet, stoic executive showing leadership. One was at his annual State of the NFL address in January 2001, when the league was under intense scrutiny over player image and reckless and violent behavior during a run of incidents. At the end of his press conference, after numerous questions on players behaving badly, Tagliabue was about as firm as I could recall, looking straight at his inquisitors and declaring, “If the rest of society can do as well as we do in the NFL, America’s crime problem will be well-addressed.” He saved his best for last, walked off stage, and the issue was, for all intents and purposes, handled.

The other instance was in Houston after Super Bowl XXXVIII and the MTV-produced Janet Jackson/Justin Timberlake halftime show. At the Monday morning press conference honoring the champion New England Patriots, a clearly angry Tagliabue called the halftime show “offensive and embarrassing,” and declared, “I just want to say this: We will change our policies, our people and our processes before the next Super Bowl to ensure that this entertainment is far more effectively dealt with and is of far more appropriate quality for a Super Bowl game.” Again, he made his point in a public, forceful way that exuded leadership, and, in fact, many changes were made.

Tagliabue has his critics, and his exclusion from the Pro Football Hall of Fame is the most striking evidence of that. Through the years, he’s been called stiff and devoid of personality. That’s not the Paul Tagliabue I have come to know. I have found him humble, kind and among the most brilliant and thoughtful people I have come across, with a rare global point of view that I admire. His legion of admirers and the loyalty from past colleagues is nearly unrivaled.

Policy said that Tagliabue’s manner was direct and matter-of-fact. “He was not very gregarious or friendly in an outgoing way, unless he was around people he knew and liked,” he said. “He was a combination of being preoccupied and obsessed with his responsibilities, and somewhat professorial — and at times amazingly outspoken within the confines of the room. He would get in the faces of some owners that I felt at times was a bit risky, considering his own position. He really saw the commissioner’s position where you weren’t hired, it’s as though you were elected to do a job, and it’s your responsibility to do that job. Yes, they can vote you out, but you had a job.”

It was a job that Tagliabue handled with dignity, bringing a long-term, strategic view that helped the NFL prosper in ways many felt unthinkable. Next week, we’ll offer highlights from our Lifetime Achievement Award presentation and share more tributes, recollections and memories from others who worked with Tagliabue through the years.

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com.

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