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With the CBA set to expire at the end of the 2007 season (with the last year uncapped), Tagliabue faces perhaps his toughest negotiation, as owners and players fight over the nearly $6 billion generated annually by the NFL (players currently reap 65% of that) and over future revenue from the Internet, luxury boxes and stadium advertising. The owners would like to keep most of it, and they expect Tagliabue, to whom they pay $8 million a year, to deliver.
Upshaw, negotiating for the players, worries that if the league goes into next season without a deal, the hope for a new agreement will fade as players anticipate negotiating contracts without a salary cap. "Once that genie comes out of the bottle," he says, "you can't put it back in there. This isn't the NHL. We know there is over $24 billion in TV money coming in."
Tagliabue is more sanguine. "We'll get it done. There's too much at stake, and all parties recognize that ... or at least we should."
AFTER NYU, Tagliabue worked for Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara on nuclear-weapons policy. He made no friends in the hawkish Pentagon when he founded an in-house chapter of Ban Handguns America and began circulating gun-control literature. "The guys I was working for started [calling me a] 'f------ communist nut.'" Still, Tagliabue describes his three years at the Department of Defense as the best of his life. "I learned how the real world works. I learned how to manipulate procedures, how to use the media." The two great lessons he took away from his time at the Pentagon were 1) "No matter how well designed the system is, monkeys still run the system," and 2) "Whoever is most critical to your plan will be in the crapper when you really need him."
By the late '60s Tagliabue was looking to apply his law degree more profitably and, as an aside, adds that he was not looking forward to working with the incoming Nixon Administration. Yet if Covington & Burling, the firm that hired him away from Defense, hadn't granted him two weeks off before he started so that he could paint his new house in Bethesda, Md., Tagliabue might today be the CEO of Proctor & Gamble instead of commissioner of the NFL. The firm had planned to throw their promising new attorney into a big antitrust case, defending P&G's purchase of Clorox. Instead, when Tagliabue finally showed up, Hamilton Carothers, the longtime general counsel for the NFL, was looking for someone to help with the firm's NFL practice, in particular Jets quarterback Joe Namath's involvement in a nightclub with ties to notorious gamblers. Tagliabue quickly caught Rozelle's eye and spent the next 20 years as his primary legal adviser through cases including the USFL antitrust case, the Oakland Raiders' lawsuit and various labor disputes. As the business of football became steadily more litigious through the '70s and the '80s, Rozelle's first question when confronted by yet another legal challenge was most often, "What does Paul think?"
When Rozelle stepped down, Tagliabue was the easy choice to run a league increasingly beset by legal and business problems. Yet old-line owners supported longtime football man Jim Finks, the president and G.M. of the New Orleans Saints, for 11 ballots before finally relenting. In November 1989 Paul Tagliabue became the eighth commissioner of the NFL.
WE DON'T really go to football games," sighed Chandler Tagliabue, standing at a buffet table under a giant white tent next to Azteca Stadium in Mexico City. "We go to cocktail parties at football games."
The Tagliabues were in Mexico for a game between the 49ers and the Cardinals, and Chandler was watching her husband chat with John York, owner of the 49ers; Bill Bidwell, owner of the Cardinals; and Lawrence Tanenbaum, owner of the NBA's Toronto Raptors, near a bar piled high with a pyramid of margaritas. Nearby were huge platters of tacos and chicken wings. (Traveling with Tagliabue means you are seldom more than 20 feet from prodigious quantities of chicken wings; they are indigenous to the tailgate-style gatherings he must so frequently frequent.) Tagliabue is an exceedingly social creature, and after following him through a typical week, one is struck by how much of his job is, as he says, "ceremonial"--small talk, plates of finger food, dinner-party chatter, impromptu little speeches in praise of elementary school projects and charitable donations. And more chicken wings.
Tagliabue glides through these events with a grace that most would never have predicted during his first prickly days in office. And he has learned to massage the facts a little to make these flesh-pressing encounters flow by smoothly. On the plane down he had complained that every time he began reading Distant Neighbors, one of the seminal texts on U.S.- Mexico relations, he never got more than 20 pages into it. Yet at a luncheon a few hours after landing in Mexico City, he made a speech at the home of lawyer Alexis Rovzar, the chairman of the NFL Mexico Advisory Board, in which he said he had read Distant Neighbors and then recounted an anecdote from the book. An anecdote from the beginning of the book. "He has a way of embellishing," says Chandler, laughing. "He can read part of a book and think he's read the whole book. At lunch Paul said he'd been studying Spanish for a year. My God! He's had one lesson." She shakes her head. "With Paul, experiences have a way of ... enlarging."
The commissioner's broad range of interests--he expounded for a while on corn subsidies during the flight down--has employees at NFL headquarters similarly "enlarging" their experiences. "When Paul [took over], we all got The Economist and pretended to read it," says NFL executive VP of communications and public affairs Joe Browne, "so that when he walks into your office, you have it right in front of you."