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Laying Down Law in NFL

Tagliabue succeeded Rozelle 15 years ago, and league has grown even more successful

June 27, 2004|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — The place is called "the cage," and the lanky first-year New York University law student would soon find out why.

He had come for a friendly game of three-on-three, a bit of pickup basketball on the legendary asphalt courts at Sixth Avenue and West Fourth Street in Manhattan. Instead, he was guarded by a guy who fouled him hard, shoved him into the chain-link fence, and answered every complaint with an unapologetic: "Hey, that's how we play in New York."

Finally, the 6-foot-5 future lawyer could tolerate no more. He told a teammate to get the ball near the rim, then leaped for the rebound and clobbered the bully on the way down. A swift elbow to the nose was all it took to crumple the thug.

"Oh, I'm so sorry," the tall kid said, leaning over the bloodied heap. "Forgive me."

Paul Tagliabue has always known how to get his point across.

In his 15 years as NFL commissioner, Tagliabue, 63, has shown the toughness he developed as the son of a Jersey City contractor and a center on Georgetown's basketball team. His firm hand has guided the league through a period of growth, prosperity and labor peace.

Unlike his personable predecessor, the late Pete Rozelle, Tagliabue comes across as wooden and aloof. But close friends and colleagues say he's remarkably introspective and nostalgic, and, no matter where he is, the smartest person in the room.

And when pushed, Tagliabue pushes back. He did it on the basketball court. He did it last year with ESPN, getting the network to dump "Playmakers" after one season, even though it had strong ratings and made millions of dollars. He was relentless in negotiations in 2001 when game officials went on strike before they buckled to his demands. He has helped reshape the skylines of more than a dozen U.S. cities with new NFL stadiums.

Many say Tagliabue's most impressive accomplishment is ably running a league of multimillionaires and billionaire owners, each of whom is used to getting his way.

"There's quite a bit to the job," Pittsburgh Steeler owner Dan Rooney said. "You first try to solve things intelligently and with some decorum and try to talk things out. Sometimes people don't take no for an answer. We're not the easiest guys in the world."

Even so, the decision to offer Tagliabue a three-year contract extension was a no-brainer. The owners did that this spring by a rare unanimous vote, and Tagliabue recently agreed to the terms of a deal that runs through May 2008.

"We were saying as a united group that we very much appreciate the leadership he's brought to the league, and we'd like it to continue," New England Patriot owner Robert Kraft said.

Since Tagliabue succeeded Rozelle in 1989, the NFL is the only major professional sports league that has not been hit with a work stoppage by players. The two strikes near the end of Rozelle's 29-year career as commissioner made his last decade his worst. Rozelle was almost helpless to stop the 1982 and '87 strikes because he was subordinate to owner-run committees in several key areas, including labor. When he took over as commissioner, Tagliabue persuaded owners to give him the power Rozelle had lacked.

Sports economist Andrew Zimbalist said achieving peace with the NFL Players Assn. was Tagliabue's most significant accomplishment, and he praised the league's current efforts to extend the collective-bargaining agreement, even though it doesn't expire until 2007.

"The NFL makes sure there's smooth sailing," Zimbalist said. "It's the right way to approach corporate sponsors, and the right way to approach your fans."

Rozelle also had to deal with all types of litigation, especially in his last years as commissioner. Tagliabue, who began his NFL career as a league lawyer in the early 1970s, has, for the most part, been fortunate enough to stay out of court. The only significant legal skirmish has been with the Oakland Raiders over the rights to the Los Angeles market.

In the Tagliabue era, 21 of the 32 teams have built new stadiums or renovated old ones. The most glaring shortfall in his tenure is that L.A., the nation's second-largest market, has been without an NFL team since 1995. The league seems to be serious about changing that, although it's not clear whether the recent dealings with groups from the Coliseum, Carson and Pasadena will produce meaningful results.

Tagliabue said in May that the league planned to select one of the three sites by next spring, in hopes of having a team in L.A. for the 2008 season.

The L.A. situation is only one of several pressing issues on the commissioner's agenda. Among them are renegotiating the television contracts, which expire after the 2005 season; further development of the NFL Network, and promoting the game overseas, particularly in Asia.

During a recent interview, Tagliabue was asked about speculation that the next round of TV negotiations would produce only a modest increase in revenue, not the staggering spike of years past.

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