Tagliabue doesn't overestimate his accomplishments; he knows that the NFL's success is, in part, "an accident of history ... the right game, with the right weekly schedule of contests, during the right season of the year." He believes all that gives football a natural advantage over other sports because, he says, the greatest threat to any professional sport is overexposure. "Football, because of the natural limitations of the game, resists that." He points to the current glut of televised NBA and Major League Baseball games as examples of sports that have become too "easy." More than 120 million people tune in to the NFL every Sunday. Would fans watch more professional football? Absolutely. But more televised games would undercut the value of the league.
Despite being a childhood baseball fan, he dismisses the national pastime as "about as exciting as standing in line at the supermarket. Baseball doesn't test anything but your ability to withstand boredom."
Perhaps trying to soften the blow he's just landed on baseball's chin, he broadens his attack. "Look," he says with a sigh, "I think the popularity of all sports in our society is a measure of how much disposable income there is and how much interest we have in the unnecessary."
Yet, as the man paid to keep football on top, he must be forever wary of threats to gridiron supremacy. And they come from all directions: Terrell Owens's agent, Al Davis's lawyers, Janet Jackson's breasts. "We chose to work with the wrong people on that one," Tagliabue says of the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show in which a "wardrobe malfunction" launched a million headlines. "Not only was her flashing inappropriate, I thought the whole show was misogynistic crap."
When ESPN aired Playmakers in 2003, the football show about a fictitious professional football team of drug abusers, womanizers and wife beaters, he took a similarly hard line, calling Michael Eisner, then CEO of Disney, the parent company of ESPN, and decrying the show as the "worst racial stereotyping I have ever seen."
Eisner brought up North Dallas Forty and told Tagliabue he was overreacting. Tagliabue told Eisner he also objected to the show because it was clearly "knocking off our league. This is clearly about the NFL." When a corporate lawyer who happens to control one of your main TV properties-- Disney also owns ABC, which then televised Monday Night Football--says you may be violating his copyright, you listen. ESPN canceled Playmakers after 11 episodes.
Exerting similar influence in his primary function of "herding cats," as Tagliabue puts it, is sometimes a little harder because he must get three fourths of the NFL's owners to agree with any new policies or plans. "You've got 32 owners who are very independent," says Detroit Lions owner William Clay Ford. "It's a tough group to manage because most of these people are used to speaking and not listening." As a consensus builder, Tagliabue benefits from his time as a corporate lawyer, when he learned it was better to settle some contentious cases than risk a day in court. He also learned that the secret to negotiating with some of the world's toughest dealmakers--Fortune 500 CEOs and NFL owners--is to listen. "The main thing in any negotiation is to never assume you know the other side's position. Listen first. Don't do anything. Just sit there and listen."
His indomitable patience is a virtue. "He doesn't overreact," says Pittsburgh Steelers chairman Dan Rooney. For the owners it is flattering to have an intellect as formidable as Tagliabue's at their beck and call. "It makes the owners feel smarter than they actually are," says one league employee, and it allows Tagliabue to get some good fiscal medicine down their throats. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has tangled with the commissioner several times, notably over whether clubs should be allowed to cut their own sponsorship deals. "We've had our issues ... ," Jones says. "He is a very professional person, and he is very controlled. Certainly, he is imposing. Certainly, we've raised our voices with each other. And he is very effective when he raises his voice."
Other critics say that he has been too effective arguing the owners' position on certain issues, such as virtually eliminating guaranteed contracts in the NFL. "I don't have any problem with where we are in terms of guaranteed contracts," he says, his voice rising. "Guaranteed contracts don't do anything except take money from a guy who is playing and give it to a guy who isn't."
He cites the NBA. "Are those players slacking? Absolutely. Football is a sport that is way too tough to take a chance--it comes back to my contrived-adversity point. Since this is contrived adversity, you have to maintain the incentive to put up with the adversity. I acknowledge it's not a prolabor stance, but it is a properformance stance."