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3:15 P.M., SUNDAY; TV: CHANNEL 4. RADIO: KNX (1070)

He's Still It in Annual Game of Tag

Commissioner: As usual, everyone gets together to hear Tagliabue say nothing.


SAN DIEGO — Every year they flock, by the thousands, like pilgrims to Lourdes. But there are no miracles, not even any exciting moments, for the sportswriters and sportscasters who make the journey. There is only a news conference by Paul Tagliabue.

Afterward, they stand around and talk to one another, wondering rhetorically why they hadn't just gone to lunch early, instead of trekking into yet another massive ballroom in yet another massive hotel in yet another city under siege by yet another mass of fan humanity seeking tickets or thrills, whichever comes first.

Tagliabue's news conference has become a Super Bowl tradition, just like AFC defeats.

It is the chance for the commissioner of the wealthiest, most influential, most powerful and most arrogant league to bring the media, and in turn the public, up to date on the NFL's goings-on. At least, that's what it is supposed to be, maybe what it used to be.

More recently, it has become a chance for writers and broadcasters to bag on the big guy, to roll out their senses of humor on a man who seems to have none. His non-answers to questions become food for thought, not to mention written and broadcast rips. His slick sidesteps become fair game. Nothing is sacred.

At one point Friday, in response to a question about why he never seemed to show up for games in Baltimore, where the departure of the beloved Colts to Indianapolis has left many fans eternally angry with the NFL, Tagliabue replied that he'd had back surgery recently and couldn't travel as much last season. One particularly sarcastic reporter turned to an NFL official and whispered, "Oh, God. He's actually playing the bad-back card."

It has become a situation in which Tagliabue cannot win, no matter how hard he tries. And he certainly does try.

When asked about the recent $17.6-billion dent the NFL put in the television industry, Tagliabue's answer could have been a Mother Teresa press release.

"Some people have used the terms 'staggering,' 'shocking,' 'unbelievable,' " he said. "I think of it more as constituting just a beginning. It is a tribute to the past and present performances of players and coaches. It is also a tribute to the passion of the fans . . . " He skipped the guys selling hot dogs, but you just can't please everybody.

He also sang the praises, at least twice, of Gene Upshaw, head of the players' union and the one person, were he so inclined, who could start emptying the pot of gold the NFL just found at the end of its rainbow.

And he went out of his way to say that there will be more for the older players, the veterans, from this recent bonanza.

"We want to give our current players financial security into their 40s and 50s," he said, prompting one to wonder about some of those players in their 60s and 70s with knees that don't bend and fingers that look like hamburger.

Tagliabue is the master of the future tense, the guru of the "study" and the "ongoing process" and the "work in progress."

The question of minority hiring brought a "need to make it a priority" answer. The question of Houston's progress toward getting a new team brought an "encouraged by the progress" answer. Bad press access brought the "ongoing study" answer. Expansion to Cleveland brought the "we are on track to doing that" answer.

A personal favorite? The question about the validity of the figure of $500 million as a projected franchise fee brought the following answer: "That's a throw-around figure."

He was, of course, asked about Los Angeles, its prospects for a franchise, his reaction to The Times' poll that indicated major indifference to the NFL in the wake of the Rams' and Raiders' departures, and his feelings about the Coliseum and other possible sites.

His answer?

Sorry, you are not going to get it, not even when it comes from the Czar of Slick. As Los Angeles sports fans, you have suffered enough. You do not need to hear the same stuff again, the same stuff you have heard over and over again, spun left and spun right by politicians and officials and spokespersons for politicians and officials. Good journalism says we give it to you all, every time, every day. Better journalism says we don't torture you.

As for Tagliabue, let's give some credit and make a plea.

First, all of what has been said here notwithstanding, the man is a huge success. He runs a zillion-dollar operation, has people dying to pay him huge gobs of TV money, has half the population of the country standing in a hotel lobby here dying to be gouged on the price of a ticket to see his game, and gets to ride everywhere in limos. Do you suppose he cares that a bunch of writers and broadcasters think he is dull, evasive and calculating? Hell, that simply makes him a great lawyer, which is what he used to be.

And the plea?

Please, Paul, don't ever stop doing your Super Bowl news conference, even though some of your advisors are certain to suggest that. We need you, big guy. During Super Bowl week, you are our reason for living.

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