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Commissioner Rice?

March 21, 2006

'IF THAT JOB COMES OPEN, I'M GONE." That's what Condoleezza Rice told Ebony magazine last November when she was asked about her oft-repeated desire to become commissioner of the National Football League. With Commissioner Paul Tagliabue's announcement Monday that he plans to step down in July, it may be time for President Bush to look for another secretary of State.

The NFL's 32 team owners would be crazy not to offer the top job to Rice. Her constant teasing about wanting the job -- she told Fox News in December that she wanted it -- is reminiscent of another improbable sports commissioner, baseball's A. Bartlett Giamatti. The onetime president of Yale University kept teasing about wanting to work in baseball -- until baseball figured out he wasn't really teasing and offered him a job. He served as commissioner for less than a year before his death in 1989.

Rice's office issued the obligatory not-interested-at-this-time statement Monday. But it's hard to see why she wouldn't accept the job if it were offered. After years of fronting for the abrasive Bush administration, Rice would instantly become a bipartisan diplomat and one of the nation's top executives, presiding over America's most popular sport. Thanks to Tagliabue's success, Rice would take over a healthy $6-billion enterprise that is fueled by almost $4 billion in TV revenue and enjoys harmonious labor relations.

And wouldn't it be more fun to tinker with the instant-replay rules than worry about nuclear nonproliferation? Wouldn't she prefer to negotiate with Gene Upshaw, the famously congenial head of the NFL player's union, than with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who famously called Rice illiterate? Even if the NFL gig isn't as fun as it seems on the outside, bear in mind that Tagliabue was paid almost $10 million last year; Rice earned less than $200,000.

For a league long concerned with promoting minorities within its coaching and managerial ranks, it would be a stroke of genius to bring in an African American woman to run the show. And a former secretary of State would be ideal. It takes a great deal of diplomacy to manage the 32 super-rich egomaniacs who own NFL teams, especially when the secret of the parity-obsessed league's success is getting these owners to act like committed socialists. With its revenue-sharing philosophy, the NFL's motto might as well be the old Marxist formulation: "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need."

Then there is the matter of foreign expansion, or the league's own version of the preemption doctrine overseas. The NFL's attendance record was set in Mexico City's Azteca Stadium, of all places, and the league is keen to attract a greater global audience. Maybe Rice could invite Chavez to a game. We hear the seats in the commissioner's box are pretty nice.

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