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If you saw Pete Rozelle at the end, you saw a man who needed out. He didn't so much look old as he looked annoyed. After 30 years as NFL commissioner, Rozelle looked as though he were sitting in an idling supercharged race car, waiting for his replacement driver, and nobody would come. He had a strange smile that said, "In about two more seconds I'm taking a hike, and you can watch this machine drive itself."
To be sure, the NFL was in great shape: TV ratings were high and game attendance (almost 14 million in 1989) was at an alltime high, players were making more money (average annual salary: $299,600) than ever, franchises (if you could get one) were going for about $100 million, and the global market beckoned. Rozelle clearly had overstayed his prime by a couple of years, but let no one say he wasn't a hell of a driver when he had his kid gloves on and the pedal to the metal.
When Paul Tagliabue, a 6'5", 49-year-old former Georgetown basketball center and the NFL's chief outside legal counsel finally took the keys from his longtime pal last October, it came first as a relief that a replacement had arrived and then as a surprise that he immediately put the hammer down. He took off like a rocket. In case you missed Tagliabue when he blew by, here's what has come about under his direction in the last 10 months:
In November he had NFL Charities contribute $1 million to San Francisco earthquake victims. He quietly established a direct line of communication between his office and the NFL Players Association, which is entering its fourth season without a collective bargaining agreement. In December he expanded the membership and the responsibilities of the Competition, Broadcast and Finance committees.
In February he worked out an agreement with Turner Broadcasting System to telecast early-season games in prime time. He added a preseason date in West Germany to the American Bowl series of exhibition games that already had stops in Canada, England and Japan. He also stretched the 16-game regular season to 17 weeks in 1990 and '91 and to 18 weeks in '92 and '93, creating open dates in a schedule that had become increasingly burdened by TV's demand for prime-time kickoffs. Sensing imminent legal attack, he also declared college juniors eligible for the NFL's regular draft, amending a cozy seniors-only rule that had served the league nicely for 53 years.
In March he swung some biggies. He completed negotiations on four-year contracts with ABC, CBS, NBC, ESPN and TBS for a total of $3,643 billion, the largest deal of its kind in TV history. He pushed through a more stringent steroid-testing policy for players. He fought off a move to dump instant replay but agreed to a two-minute cap on reviews and unveiled minor rule changes to help shorten games to three hours or less. He declared that league expansion, coupled with conference realignment, would occur no later than '93. And he announced the addition of two more wild-card teams to the playoff format.
In April he appointed Dr. John Lombardo as the NFL's adviser on performance-enhancing drugs, and three weeks later named Dr. Lawrence Brown as league adviser for drugs of abuse. Both replaced the bumbling and much despised—by the players, at least—Dr. Forest Tennant, who had resigned under pressure in February.
In July, Tagliabue called San Francisco 49er owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. (page 122) on the carpet for having violated league rules against corporate ownership of a team. He began meeting with teams and coaches, just to shake hands and say he cared. He announced that league executives and game officials would be tested for drugs. He turned down the request for reinstatement to the league by former Washington Redskins defensive end Dexter Manley, who had been banned under the league's drug policy. He addressed lawyers about antitrust law. He testified before a congressional committee investigating cable TV, stating that the NFL "has no interest whatsoever in alienating its fans or in causing public support for NFL football to diminish by making it difficult for fans to see our games on television."
In August he answered the complaints of the NCAA and the College Football Association by limiting the amount of time NFL scouts spend interviewing and testing collegiate players on campus. He turned down the request for reinstatement to the NFL by former Philadelphia Eagle defensive lineman Kevin Allen, who had been convicted of sexual assault.
Tagliabue's working motto seemed to be: Head off criticism before it occurs. A questioner recently brought up some small concerns about one of Tagliabue's big decisions, to which he replied, "De minimis non curat lex. The law doesn't worry about tiny details." Close the door, and let's burn rubber.