THE NFL'S NEW BOSS
Last Thursday, as Paul Tagliabue descended the staircase to the lobby of Cleveland's grand old Stouffer hotel following his election as the NFL's seventh commissioner. Tommy Smith, executive assistant to the president of the Oilers, tossed a penny into the lobby fountain. "Good luck to Tags," said Smith. "He'll need it."
At last the league had ended its stormy, seven-month search for a successor to Pete Rozelle. In choosing Tagliabue, 48. a respected attorney, team owners got an experienced NFL insider—yet someone who may be willing to act more boldly than Rozelle did to resolve the labor problems facing the league. Significantly, the Young Turk owners had defeated the NFL's old guard, who had controlled league policy for two decades and who had argued for the election of New Orleans Saints president Jim Finks. "Amazing? Absolutely. Who would have ever thought it could happen?" said Tagliabue backer Hugh Culverhouse Jr., who represented his father, Hugh Sr., owner of the Buccaneers, at the Cleveland meetings.
Tagliabue's election was all but assured following a meeting on Oct. 25 of a five-member committee Rozelle had formed that day to break the deadlock. The committee consisted of old-guarders Wellington Mara of the Giants and Art Modell of the Browns, Young Turks Pat Bowlen of the Broncos and Mike Lynn of the Vikings, and peacemaker Dan Rooney of the Steelers. When Mara and Modell failed to persuade the others to support Finks, they called Finks in New Orleans to ask if as part of a compromise, he would accept a newly created position as league president for football operations. Finks refused. "I'm in it [the commissioner's race] for the duration," he said.
Mara and Modell, realizing that Finks wasn't electable, switched their votes to Tagliabue. They knew that Rozelle was considering leaving office within a week even if his successor wasn't in place, and that another candidate search might force them to accept a candidate from outside the NFL. "The last thing I wanted was to have the league go outside." Mara said.
Tagliabue did not receive the blessing of all 28 owners when they met the next day to vote. After Rozelle counted the ballots and found that Tagliabue had at least two more than the 19 votes needed for election, he asked the club executives to make Tagliabue's election unanimous. Ralph Wilson of the Bills and several other old-guard owners objected. They wanted it on the record that they still favored Finks. Old-guarder John Kent Cooke of the Redskins said he was already looking ahead to the next search process—the one that could start when Tagliabue's contract (which is worth at least $800,000 a year) expires in 1994.
This last gasp of opposition to Tagliabue was merely the product of bruised egos. The old guard has no quarrel with Tagliabue's qualifications—nor should it. Tagliabue has been on the other end of Rozelle's what-do-we-do-now phone calls for more than a decade. He has long handled most of the NFL's legal affairs, and has been in charge of the league's defense in the ongoing antitrust suit brought by the NFL Players Association (NFLPA). He has the respect of virtually every executive in the league—even Al Davis, whom he tried to fry in court several years ago when the NFL attempted to block Davis from moving the Raiders from Oakland to Los Angeles.
Tagliabue will have to draw on all his talents to resolve the NFL's difficulties, which include:
•Collective bargaining. The league has been without a labor agreement with its players for 26 months. Unlike Rozelle. Tagliabue may get personally involved in negotiations. He questions the current system, in which the Management Council represents owners in talks with the NFLPA. "There's a real question, with strikes coming on the way they have, whether the commissioner can leave it [the negoiating] over there and ignore it," he says.
Tagliabue has already shown initiative in attacking the collective-bargaining impasse. In the spring of 1988 he suggested to NFLPA leaders that they meet with the Management Council in an off-the-record negotiating session. He proposed that each side sign an agreement saying that nothing in the talks could be used in a future court case; thus both sides would be able to float trial balloons. NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw agreed to the session, but according to Tagliabue, NFLPA lawyers "asked me what I was up to" and ultimately quashed the meeting. Tagliabue, who envisions himself as a mediator between the interests of the owners and those of the players, still wants to hold off-the-record talks, which he thinks could be the first step toward a new contract.