Taking Stock of Paul Tagliabue's NFL Legacy

Paul Tagliabue is retiring as commissioner of the National Football League. He will be remembered for business savvy, say Chicago Sun-Times sports columnist Ron Rapoport and New York Times business columnist Joe Nocera.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

And time now for sports.

National Football League Commissioner Paul Tagliabue will step down from his post in July. This week's announcement followed yet another peaceful resolution to labor talks. Mr. Tagliabue is regarded as the best commissioner of any sport of all time. He's kept billionaire owners, millionaire players in cities small as Green Bay and large as New York happy during his 16 year tenure. The Tagliabue era like any good football game requires two hands on the ball first.

Our sports commentator Ron Rapoport is a columnist for the Chicago Sun Times and joins us from Chicago.

Hi, Ron.

Mr. RON RAPOPORT (Columnist, Chicago Sun Times): Hi Linda.

WERTHEIMER: And Joe Nocera is our friend from the business world, a columnist with the New York Times. He is at member station WSER in Amherst, Massachusetts. Hello, Joe.

Mr. JOE NOCERA (New York Times Columnist): Hi, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: So Ron, let's start with you. Bring us back to the time when Paul Tagliabue was hired. The NFL chose business savvy over knowledge of football?

Mr. RAPOPORT: Well, it's always been about business Linda. That was no surprise. You know, the NFL was really built on what I'd guess you'd have to call corporate socialism. Burt Bell, who was a commissioner in the Forties and Fifties, came up with the idea of sharing gate receipts so no team would make a whole lot more money than any other. Then Pete Roselle applied that to TV, which was hugely important because of the disparity of the television markets between, say, Green Bay and New York.

Tagliabue's big contribution came in the form of a salary cap in 1992 which insures that every team spends about the same amount of money on players. And that's the NFL's great genius, that they made all this money and kept a level playing field.

WERTHEIMER: Joe, let's talk about that money and specifically talk about the money for television rights. What did Mr. Tagliabue manage to accomplish that should be a lesson to future NFL commissioners?

Mr. NOCERA: Well, it's actually pretty impressive. No NFL team loses money. That's a startling fact in it of itself. And one of the things he's done is he's persuaded these 32 people who own these teams who are very strong willed and wealthy and my way or the highway kind of people, that the interest of the league should come ahead of any individual team. And so you have a situation where they just signed a new TV deal. The league is going to get four billion dollars a year and all of that is going to be split among the teams.

WERTHEIMER: Joe, Paul Tagliabue didn't come up with the idea of profit sharing but one of the things that he did do, it seems to me, is to keep that TV money high by putting everything up for bids every year, by kind of creating a competition.

Mr. NOCERA: Oh, absolutely. And he started Sunday Night Football. And he was unafraid to take football away from CBS and, you know, parcel it out to other people. You know, Fox came along and became a huge bidder for football rights, and there is no question that he maximized not only TV revenue but most other forms of marketing revenue. It's one of his great accomplishments and I would agree with Ron also that the other great accomplishment was having labor peace. They signed the original agreement in 1992, and they have not had a strike since, and that's been hugely important.

And the salary cap this past year, when you include benefits, was a hundred million dollars a year. The money that each team gets from the NFL is 112 million dollars a year this past season. So you start the season without a football being thrown or kicked your labor costs covered.

WERTHEIMER: Ron, other sports have not seen fit to adopt the model of the NFL. Why not? Wouldn't it have been better for them to do that?

Mr. RAPOPORT: The owners of the other sports one either aren't as smart, or they're not as ruthless. Take your pick. For instance, the NFL has something that no other sport and no other business that I know of, has ever thought of. It's the non guaranteed contract, which is sort of an oxymoron when you think about it. What it means is . . .

WERTHEIMER: Yeah, you pay, you offer a player 10 million dollars and if they break their leg the next day, they don't get that 10 million dollars.

Mr. RAPOPORT: Exactly. All you get is the bonus money and maybe the first year guaranteed. And the team has the right to cancel or renegotiate a contract any time it wants. And baseball and basketball just don't have that. And that's why you see the NFL renegotiating contracts and simply canceling them all the time, where other sports are stuck with the contracts that they sign.

And that's one of the big ways that the NFL has kept the players in line. And also, you know, Ron is so right about the ruthlessness of NFL owners. I mean they are a tougher breed than owners in other sports, and I think one of Tagliabue's great accomplishments is getting these guys in the first place in the early Nineties to agree to something that they never really wanted to do, which is to in fact make peace with the union and guarantee them a portion of the income, which they had fought fiercely, and in return giving free agent rights to players, which is something baseball never learned how to do. They never learned how to do. They fought it and fought it and fought it.

WERTHEIMER: Thank you both very much. Joe Nocera is a columnist for the New York Times. Ron Rapoport is a columnist for the Chicago Sun Times and our sports commentator here on WEEKEND EDITION. Gentlemen, that was great.

Mr. RAPOPORT: Thank you.

Mr. NOCERA: Thanks Linda.

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