Sports Outside the Beltway

Paul Tagliabue’s Legacy

Pro Football Hall of Fame sportswriter Rick Gosselin believes the time is right for Paul Tagliabue to retire, as he has nothing else left to accomplish.

Pete Rozelle was arguably the greatest commissioner in the history of American professional sports.

His successor may have been even better.

Rozelle broadened the popularity of the National Football League from a Midwest and Northern base in the 1960s into a national passion by the 1980s. But Rozelle walked away in 1989 at the age of 63, having been beaten down by two labor stoppages in the 1980s.

Paul Tagliabue didn’t just take over for Rozelle. He took charge, masterminding the transition from a sport to multi-billion dollar industry in the 1990s.

And business has never been better.

That may be the reason Tagliabue, at the age of 65, has decided the time is right to walk away from the highest-profile executive position in sports. He announced Monday he would retire as NFL commissioner in July.

Frankly, there was nothing left for Tagliabue to accomplish. His league has labor peace, full stadiums, rich television contracts, and its championship game has become a national sporting holiday.

Tagliabue’s plan was a simple one – peace and prosperity.

When he negotiated a peace with the NFL Players Association in 1992, giving the union its much-coveted free agency, there was an explosion of prosperity.

“Turning around the relationship and building a strong relationship with the NFL Players Association was the thing I’m most proud of,” Tagliabue said. “Everyone involved in the NFL in the 1980s saw that as a growing negative. To turn that relationship around and make the players into partners … was a very positive thing.”

That collective bargaining agreement has been extended three times, most recently this month. That ensures labor peace through 2011. The television networks are paying a premium price for that stability – and let’s face it, TV drives the train in the NFL.

When Tagliabue was hired in 1989, the NFL was in the midst of a $1.4 billion television contract with four networks. In 2005, the NFL negotiated a $23.9 billion contract with five networks. So the owners are prospering.

So are the players. They agreed to a $34.6 million salary cap in 1994. In 2006, each team will have a $102 million salary cap, almost tripling in 13 years.

So the game has never been healthier on the field. Or in the stands. For the third year in a row, the NFL set an attendance record with 17 million paid admissions. League-wide, the NFL plays to 90 percent stadium capacity.

Quite impressive, indeed.

AP’s Dave Goldberg contends,”Tagliabue’s legacy is money.”

Paul Tagliabue loves football. But his legacy as NFL commissioner is money. Lots of it.

Franchise values that have multiplied tenfold since he took over in November 1989. Player salaries that will soon be at that level with a new labor contract that adds up $900 million over the next six years.

In other words, he took over a league Pete Rozelle had made an institution and turned millionaires into billionaires.

“Pete brought us into the modern times with the television and other things. Paul has really taken us and made us a business entity,” Pittsburgh owner Dan Rooney said Monday, a few hours after Tagliabue called him to tell him he is stepping down in July.

Tagliabue wasn’t the most media-genic commissioner (see Rozelle or David Stern for that). But he did what is usually considered impossible: The 6-foot-5 former Georgetown basketball player succeeded a giant, then succeeded on his own, a corporate lawyer who used political skill honed as the league’s Washington lobbyist to reorganize a business that even as late as 1989 had some “mom-and-pop” elements.

The owners loved him because he made them money. The players made more money. So did everyone involved with the game, such as Fox, which became the nation’s fourth major network when it got the NFL contract for NFC games for the 1994 season. That was Tagliabue’s doing, too – he recognized that bringing in a competitor to CBS, NBC and ABC would up the ante.

The Philadelphia Inquirer‘s Phil Sheridan says that, while Tags was great, he benefitted from mediocre peers.

It almost goes without saying that Paul Tagliabue has been the best commissioner in professional sports for the last decade or so.

What is worth saying, now that Tags is stepping down, is just how distressingly easy an accomplishment that was. There is a David Stern cult, but it’s hard to buy the argument that the NBA is better or more interesting now than it was a decade ago. Michael Jordan retired, and Stern instantly stopped looking like a marketing genius. The NHL’s Gary Bettman just presided over the biggest debacle in sports management since the 1994 baseball strike. As for baseball commissioner Bud Selig, well, we can continue this discussion as soon as we all stop laughing.

Tagliabue was the best of a very mediocre group, which was dramatically evident about this time last year. One day, members of Congress humiliated poor old Selig for his total lack of action on the issue of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs. The next day, those same members of Congress treated Tagliabue as if he were Superman. They stopped just short of asking for his autograph.

Why? Because Tagliabue and NFL Players Association chief Gene Upshaw had recognized that steroids were a growing problem and made a good-faith effort to address that problem.

No one who is paying attention believes the NFL has eradicated performance-enhancing substances. As long as there is no testing for human growth hormone, the safe assumption is that a percentage of players are cheating. The percentage is probably about the same as it is or was in baseball.

The difference is that baseball willfully ignored the problem, even as Popeye-armed sluggers were scrawling their graffiti all over the record book. By trying, by continually adding to the list of banned substances and testing, the NFL looked like some paragon of integrity and virtue.

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