Paul Tagliabue and Jerry Jones are both finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s class of 2017.
Note: A version of this piece first appeared in the Super Bowl LI edition of Mort & Schefter’s Notebook.
If the antagonists of former commissioner Paul Tagliabue want to add concussions to the reasons he should not be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, they might as well blame Pete Rozelle for an unfettered steroids era that might have also contributed to the concussion crisis.
Rozelle is deservedly cited as the greatest commissioner in sports history. He certainly was deserving of his enshrinement into the Hall of Fame. So is Tagliabue, who has met resistance from voters since he retired in 2006.
Tagliabue and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones are the two contributor finalists on the class of 2017 ballot for the Hall of Fame voters’ consideration Saturday. They’ll each need a minimum of 80 percent affirmative votes to be elected and enshrined.
A few years back, despite overwhelming credentials for election, a couple of arguments made by the anti-Tagliabue crowd seemed anchored to the commissioner’s inability — categorized by some critics as indifference — to resolve the stadium crises among California franchises, which included the vacated market in Los Angeles. Really?
There also was criticism that Tagliabue left the owners with a bad labor deal before he retired because he was too “friendly” with then-NFL Players Association executive director, the late Gene Upshaw.
That criticism was laughable and rang hollow because nobody was losing money in the NFL. The league gained unprecedented labor peace among pro sports without a work stoppage that had resulted with Rozelle, whose own leadership allowed the disgrace of replacement players for three regular-season games during the 1987 NFLPA strike.
To paraphrase what someone close to Rozelle said several years ago: Tagliabue inherited and rolled up his sleeves to help resolve and fix many of the messes that drove Pete into retirement … the constant litigation, franchise movement and labor unrest, just to name a few.
This is not to denigrate Rozelle in any way; he was a pioneer who helped lead the NFL into an era where football surpassed baseball as the nation’s most popular sport. He was incredibly popular with the media because he was accessible and used his experience in public relations to effectively become a Teflon commissioner.
Tagliabue was a lawyer. A darn good one that Rozelle and NFL owners retained for some intense court battles. He didn’t have an ounce of Rozelle’s charisma. He never tried to be somebody he was not, but he was a man for the times who was in the commissioner’s chair when television contracts surpassed the billion-dollar threshold and the league expanded from 28 to 32 teams. And yes, he forged a healthy relationship with Upshaw — as did a few influential owners — that led to labor peace and a salary cap that worked for all despite a federal court ruling in favor of the players. Oh, and new stadiums were constructed under this umbrella of labor peace.
“No commissioner is perfect. It’s a relay race, of sorts. Tagliabue ran his 17-year leg with historic success, integrity and social awareness.”
Tagliabue might not have made all the right calls, as he has admitted, but he also served with integrity and had a discernible social conscience. When Art Modell did the unthinkable by moving the Browns out of Cleveland, Tagliabue made certain that Cleveland would get an expansion franchise and that the “Browns” moniker and team records would remain with its franchise.
When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, Saints owner Tom Benson was well on his way to moving the franchise to San Antonio. But Tagliabue saw the devastation of Katrina and wouldn’t allow it. Several owners did not see New Orleans as a market worth salvaging, but Tagliabue did; he saved the franchise and is credited by state leaders for the resurgence of the Crescent City.
Then there’s the Rooney Rule, the policy Tagliabue and Steelers owner Dan Rooney created that required interviews of minority candidates for head-coaching vacancies.
As for the concussion issue, even leading neurosurgeons will tell you that concussion knowledge was in its infantile stages as recently as 2000. It’s probably one reason Tagliabue admitted this week he regretted minimizing concussions as far back as 1994, when he suggested it was a journalism issue, not a football problem.
But again, blaming concussions on Tagliabue would be like blaming Rozelle for the steroids era during the 1970s and ’80s that few seem to acknowledge or remember. That really was a journalistic issue, until Atlanta Falcons guard Bill Fralic took it directly to the media, the commissioner and the NFLPA in 1986 — a year after Fralic was the No. 2 overall pick in the draft.
Under the transparency and forceful will of Fralic — who took his fight to the Senate Judiciary Committee as an active player — Rozelle did eventually move to ban steroids and tested once a year for it.
But it was Tagliabue who implemented random steroid testing even before there was a new collective bargaining agreement without strong objection from Upshaw, a Hall of Fame guard himself who also was persuaded by Fralic and some of the evidence he had seen and experienced during his own playing days.
No commissioner is perfect. It’s a relay race of sorts. Tagliabue ran his 17-year leg with historic success, integrity and social awareness.
Jones, meanwhile, dared to butt heads with Tagliabue and owners, but he was almost always right. Jones was the most influential voice who changed the landscape of NFL marketing and revenue, and other owners enjoyed the unforeseen boon of franchise valuations. Players made their fair share, too.
Oh, and if you want to blame Jones for firing Jimmy Johnson, you might also want to credit him with hiring Johnson in the first place. Jones replaced a Hall of Fame legend like Tom Landry and hired a college coach who soon constructed one of the greatest teams in NFL history. Jones drove America’s Team to prosperity when it had been losing money. … And his NFL partners made money, too.
The bottom line: Tagliabue and Jones deserve to be welcomed to Canton with election on Saturday and enshrinement in August.