NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, 65, has announced his retirement, pending in July. Tagliabue, who will continue serving as a consultant to the league, is eulogized as “the greatest commissioner in pro football history” by Fox Sports’ John Czarnecki. Though this is kind of like saying John Entwistle is one of the top 2 bassists in the history of The Who, there is considerable meat to Tags’ track record.
Tagliabue never had Pete Rozelle’s everyman charm, his willingness to confide in reporters as well as owners and general managers, but he made sure that everyone connected to the NFL became richer for the experience.
There are few American corporations that can rival the NFL ($6 billion income in 2005 and climbing) with its strong salaries along with solid pensions and health care for its league and club employees. Baseball and basketball stars may be earning more, but many of them are playing in half-empty stadiums and arenas. With the exception of Arizona and Oakland, this is not the case in the NFL.
Rozelle made the NFL the most popular sport in television history, but Tagliabue made sure that the networks paid dearly for his product and that is his legacy. That, and convincing Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Association, to accept labor deals that until this most recent one were generally extremely favorable to NFL owners.
Anyone in the NFL who was associated with the players’ walkouts and labor stoppages in the 1982 and 1987 seasons knows how important labor peace was to the growth and the financial stability of the league. The NFL actually played three regular-season games with mostly replacement players in 1987, a definite blot on NFL history.
Right behind labor peace, Tagliabue’s best contribution was the creation of a funding mechanism in which NFL owners could borrow money in order to build new stadiums. He also excelled at being politically savvy with local and state officials when a team owner wanted a stadium built. He played a large role in saving the Buccaneers in Tampa and most recently the Saints in New Orleans, who will return to the city this season after being forced out by Hurricane Katrina last year.
19 new stadiums, record-shattering TV deals, and the gradual elevation of the NFL to it’s current status as America’s top spectator sport besides looking at Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ crotch.
I’m most impressed, however, with the NFL’s teflon status compared to the stains suffered by other leagues. The degree to which the troubles of Ron Artest have stigmatized the NBA, or Barry Bonds’ mark on major league baseball dominates coverage, we just don’t see in the NFL. The likes of Ray Lewis or Rae Carruth never overshadowed Tags’ empire. Even during the Vikings’ Sex Boat scandal of 2005, I rarely heard any suggestion that such negative p.r. was ultimately a poor reflection on the NFL. Isolated incidents are isolated incidents, even when there are dozens of ’em.