When SPORTS ILLUSTRATED got seven pro football heavyweights together in a New York City conference room last month to discuss the state and the future of the NFL, the good times ruled. Lions vice chairman Bill Ford Jr. and Packers general manager Ron Wolf, who recently had moaned that the league seemed more concerned with NFL Properties than with blocking and tackling, were flush with optimism during the 2½-hour roundtable. Mike Shanahan, coach of the two-time Super Bowl champion Broncos, wanted to give the commissioner's office more power. No one said a discouraging word to Fox Sports TV president David Hill about his network's Simpsonizing of the game.
We expected at least a little friction between the union boss, NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw, and the owners' man, commissioner Paul Tagliabue. Yet throughout the proceedings the two joked with each other as if they were best of friends.
Only Vikings wideout Cris Carter, a six-time All-Pro, seemed inclined to stir things up. He aired some of the rank and file's concerns about the color of the league (he suggested that a small group of owners is racist) and about the NFL's substance-abuse program (not tough enough). Here are the highlights of the discussion, which was moderated by SI senior writer Peter King.
King: How would you assess the state of pro football?
Tagliabue: I would take it on two levels. I think what you see on the field is tremendously exciting, a lot of superskilled athletes playing in a very competitive environment. The second level would be what has been done with the collective bargaining agreement, which is allocating the talent fairly, continuing to have a draft, having a salary cap coupled with the free agency. We've got a good structure in place.
Ford: The one constant we have is the game. Everything surrounding it has changed over the years—the economics, the way we market it—but the game is the same one that my grandfather and my father watched. The game still appeals to people today just as it did 50 years ago.
Shanahan: I think we do a great job each year of analyzing the game. We're never satisfied, saying, "O.K., the NFL is Number 1, we like where we are."
Hill: Bill's comments are right on the money. In a constantly changing society, football stays strong. In the broader entertainment context, I can see it becoming only stronger because every year we look at a different entertainment spectrum, with DVD machines, more cable channels, more satellite channels. Those are all taking eyes from the traditional network forums, but football stands like a giant in a sea of people.
Carter: The one thing that concerns me is, socially and morally, we have to continue to check ourselves. The fans view the NFL as having a certain image, but do we necessarily meet that image? Is the player the same player that we're marketing to the public? I don't believe he is.
King: What might prevent the NFL from remaining the premier sports league?