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Volume 21 No. 2
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‘Let’s all give back’

Former commissioner calls for ‘sharp focus on the unique values of sport at each level’

Paul Tagliabue towered above the podium, scanning the crowd that filled the New York City ballroom. In each corner of the room, he saw someone he knew.

There was Don Garber, the former NFL marketer he assigned to NFL International all those years earlier. There was Donald Dell, a former attorney for tennis players he battled with as a young associate at Covington & Burling. There was Jerry Richardson, the former pro football player he awarded an NFL team in 1993.

Paul Tagliabue accepts the Lifetime Achievement Award at Wednesday night's Sports Business Awards.
Each of them joined the room of nearly 800 sports business executives who stood in appreciation and in honor of Tagliabue, the former NFL commissioner who was joining Peter Ueberroth and Billie Jean King as the third recipient of the SportsBusiness Journal/Daily’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

After lengthy applause, Tagliabue raised his arms wide and repeatedly pressed his hands downward. He was grateful to receive the award because he felt it recognized the NFL’s growth as a business, but he had something else he wanted to tell people in attendance.

“As leaders in sport, now more than ever, we must keep a clear eye and sharp focus on the unique values of sport,” Tagliabue said. “We can’t allow entertainment, commercial or celebrity interests to overrun sport at all levels. Believe me, I’m not against commerce. And I’m not against celebrity. But we can’t let it overrun everything at every level. If we do so, we will fail to accomplish at each level what we are responsible for accomplishing.”

For those who know him best, this was vintage Tagliabue: a man of integrity and substance who has an ability to identify challenges and call others to action in a way that inspires them to follow. It was those very traits that defined his leadership of the NFL as it enjoyed 17 years of labor peace, developed more than 20 stadiums, launched its own TV network and pioneered diversity hiring practices among coaches.

“My respect for what he stands for is what made me come,” said Richardson, who flew up from Charlotte with Carolina Panthers President Danny Morrison for the event. “He’s a no-nonsense person. His integrity is unparalleled.”

U.S. Ambassador and Steelers Chairman Emeritus Dan Rooney introduces Tagliabue.
When Tagliabue last year first learned SportsBusiness Journal/Daily would recognize him, one of the first calls he made was to Pittsburgh Steelers Chairman Emeritus Dan Rooney. He asked Rooney, who is now serving as the U.S. ambassador to Ireland, if Rooney would handle the introduction at last week’s event.

Rooney agreed without hesitation. The 79-year-old introduced Tagliabue as someone he’d known for 40 years as an honest and trustworthy man, and the two shared an embrace as Tagliabue took the stage.

“One of the real things he did was create the diversity clause,” Rooney said, speaking of the committee Tagliabue formed and Rooney led that resulted in the “Rooney Rule,” an effort to bring greater racial diversity to the NFL coaching ranks. “We tried for some time to do something with diversity. Most things we tried didn’t catch on, [but] we got it through the membership. It’s proven very worthwhile.”

But it wasn’t only honesty and integrity that people admired in Tagliabue.

Fox Sports Chairman David Hill, who came to find Tagliabue after the event, said that one of the biggest gifts News Corp. gave him in recent years was assigning him to work on the National Geographic Channel. The project required regular trips to D.C., where Tagliabue lives, and Hill was able to meet the former commissioner for lunch and dinner.

“He has an incredibly muscular mind,” Hill said. “You’ll be with him talking about the impact of the Etruscans on the formation of the Roman Republic or what happened in China in 1493. You can say to Paul, ‘What do you think of Marcus Tullius Cicero?’ And he’ll say, ‘I think …’ Most people don’t have a clue. He’s a true renaissance man.”

A standing ovation greeted Paul Tagliabue, joined by his wife, Chandler, as he accepted his SBJ/SBD Lifetime Achievement Award.
For many in attendance, though, it was not just how Tagliabue led but what he accomplished that brought them to their feet when he took the stage.

“Following [NFL Commissioner] Pete Rozelle is no easy task,” said Casey Wasserman, CEO and chairman of Wasserman Media Group. “He followed the guy who was the first and only commissioner in the sport. He doesn’t get enough credit for what he did after that.”

Octagon President Rick Dudley, who was an NFL staffer when Tagliabue replaced Rozelle, described the transition as one of some uncertainty at the league.

Rozelle left big shoes to fill. He’d built the league and had a reputation for traveling with an entourage and commanding a room.

Tagliabue was well-known as the league’s longtime general counsel, but he was far from the consensus choice to succeed Rozelle in 1989. He was far more understated and it was unclear how he would lead. But he established himself as approachable and proved he had an understanding of both business and football.

“Before [Tagliabue], it was about the product and what went on on the field,” Dudley said. “It was all about football. Nothing else mattered. That’s the right thing, but Paul added in a tasteful and measured way a commercial aspect.”

Garber, now a commissioner himself with MLS, said Tagliabue had a keen sense for marketing and saw the true potential of the NFL brand, which resulted in astounding growth and its emergence as the pre-eminent brand in professional sports.

“When you think of the great brands in the world, from Disney to Nike to Adidas to Microsoft to Apple, the NFL is a member of that group, and the league’s ability to become an influential global brand is a result of Paul’s tenure as commissioner,” Garber said.

But Tagliabue understood more than just marketing. In 1999, he pushed ownership to set aside revenue in a special fund to assist with stadium construction. The G3 fund, as the initiative is known, assisted the renovation and construction of more than 20 stadiums.

Tagliabue with Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson
Tagliabue with Fox Sports Chairman David Hill,
“That was his baby,” said Joe Leccese, chairman of Proskauer, the NFL’s primary outside counsel. “It seemed like a huge commitment at the time, but it allowed them to build stadiums for $400 million long before they cost $1 billion.”

Hill said another thing Tagliabue understood was the NFL’s potential on TV. In 1997, he commissioned a survey to find out what Americans thought of the NFL. The survey showed that 98 percent of NFL fans had never attended a game in person.

“This was a revelation,” Hill said. “It changed the thinking with the NFL and television because they realized that television was more important than the stadium. It was an important mental shift to make.”

Tagliabue spent very little time during his 15-minute acceptance speech recounting moments from his career at the NFL — although he shared humorous anecdotes of notes he received from owners over his years in office. He devoted much of his time to thanking those who had helped him throughout his career, from his Italian-immigrant parents and supportive wife to choking up briefly when remembering others no longer alive — from his law firm mentor Ham Carothers to labor counterpart Gene Upshaw.

Then he called everyone to action. He urged the audience to support sports at all levels. He discouraged colleges from paying athletes and urged them to reward athletes with multiyear education trust funds.

“Let’s stay focused on the truly unique values of sports at each level so that our programs promote the long-term interests of millions of individuals and thousands of communities and not just the immediate interests of an exceptionally lucky financial elite,” Tagliabue said. “Let’s all give back.”

The crowd rose to its feet again and applauded as he left the podium and returned to his seat.

After the event ended, dozens of former colleagues, peers and students aspiring to enter the sports business gathered around Tagliabue and he spoke to them all, while taking pictures with several. He and his family were the final ones leaving the ballroom.

The last person to approach him was former Visa sponsorship executive Michael Lynch. The two stood at the front of the Marriott Marquis’ ballroom more than a half hour after the event ended.

As workers broke down tables, Lynch told Tagliabue how much his remarks had resonated with him. Lynch, who had worked in the Olympics for years, felt grassroots sports often got overlooked, and he thanked Tagliabue for promoting the idea of giving college athletes more time to earn degrees.

Tagliabue, who attended Georgetown in the late 1950s on a basketball scholarship, reiterated a point he had in his speech earlier: An education goes much further than a salary. He was living proof.