THE NFL'S NEW BOSS
Last Thursday, as Paul Tagliabue descended the staircase to the lobby of Cleveland's grand old Stouffer hotel following his election as the NFL's seventh commissioner. Tommy Smith, executive assistant to the president of the Oilers, tossed a penny into the lobby fountain. "Good luck to Tags," said Smith. "He'll need it."
At last the league had ended its stormy, seven-month search for a successor to Pete Rozelle. In choosing Tagliabue, 48. a respected attorney, team owners got an experienced NFL insider—yet someone who may be willing to act more boldly than Rozelle did to resolve the labor problems facing the league. Significantly, the Young Turk owners had defeated the NFL's old guard, who had controlled league policy for two decades and who had argued for the election of New Orleans Saints president Jim Finks. "Amazing? Absolutely. Who would have ever thought it could happen?" said Tagliabue backer Hugh Culverhouse Jr., who represented his father, Hugh Sr., owner of the Buccaneers, at the Cleveland meetings.
Tagliabue's election was all but assured following a meeting on Oct. 25 of a five-member committee Rozelle had formed that day to break the deadlock. The committee consisted of old-guarders Wellington Mara of the Giants and Art Modell of the Browns, Young Turks Pat Bowlen of the Broncos and Mike Lynn of the Vikings, and peacemaker Dan Rooney of the Steelers. When Mara and Modell failed to persuade the others to support Finks, they called Finks in New Orleans to ask if as part of a compromise, he would accept a newly created position as league president for football operations. Finks refused. "I'm in it [the commissioner's race] for the duration," he said.
November 6, 1989
Mara and Modell, realizing that Finks wasn't electable, switched their votes to Tagliabue. They knew that Rozelle was considering leaving office within a week even if his successor wasn't in place, and that another candidate search might force them to accept a candidate from outside the NFL. "The last thing I wanted was to have the league go outside." Mara said.
Tagliabue did not receive the blessing of all 28 owners when they met the next day to vote. After Rozelle counted the ballots and found that Tagliabue had at least two more than the 19 votes needed for election, he asked the club executives to make Tagliabue's election unanimous. Ralph Wilson of the Bills and several other old-guard owners objected. They wanted it on the record that they still favored Finks. Old-guarder John Kent Cooke of the Redskins said he was already looking ahead to the next search process—the one that could start when Tagliabue's contract (which is worth at least $800,000 a year) expires in 1994.
This last gasp of opposition to Tagliabue was merely the product of bruised egos. The old guard has no quarrel with Tagliabue's qualifications—nor should it. Tagliabue has been on the other end of Rozelle's what-do-we-do-now phone calls for more than a decade. He has long handled most of the NFL's legal affairs, and has been in charge of the league's defense in the ongoing antitrust suit brought by the NFL Players Association (NFLPA). He has the respect of virtually every executive in the league—even Al Davis, whom he tried to fry in court several years ago when the NFL attempted to block Davis from moving the Raiders from Oakland to Los Angeles.
Tagliabue will have to draw on all his talents to resolve the NFL's difficulties, which include:
•Collective bargaining. The league has been without a labor agreement with its players for 26 months. Unlike Rozelle. Tagliabue may get personally involved in negotiations. He questions the current system, in which the Management Council represents owners in talks with the NFLPA. "There's a real question, with strikes coming on the way they have, whether the commissioner can leave it [the negoiating] over there and ignore it," he says.
Tagliabue has already shown initiative in attacking the collective-bargaining impasse. In the spring of 1988 he suggested to NFLPA leaders that they meet with the Management Council in an off-the-record negotiating session. He proposed that each side sign an agreement saying that nothing in the talks could be used in a future court case; thus both sides would be able to float trial balloons. NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw agreed to the session, but according to Tagliabue, NFLPA lawyers "asked me what I was up to" and ultimately quashed the meeting. Tagliabue, who envisions himself as a mediator between the interests of the owners and those of the players, still wants to hold off-the-record talks, which he thinks could be the first step toward a new contract.
•Television. The league's TV contract, which pays each team $17 million a year, expires after this season. Tagliabue hasn't decided if he favors expanding the cable portion of the package.
•Drug testing. Tagliabue says that this is the one area in which players and management have had "a complete lack of communication." He admits that steroid testing done once a year in training camp is not merely ineffective but a "fraud." Tagliabue points out. however, that legal challenges from the NFLPA have limited the league's powers to test players.
•Expansion. Cities and congressmen are clamoring for new teams, but Tagliabue will wait for a collective bargaining agreement to be signed before appointing an expansion committee. In this area in particular he will find his Capitol Hill connections—made during 20 years as a partner in the Washington, D.C., law firm of Covington & Burling and three as an analyst for the Defense Department—valuable.
Don't expect a slew of new proposals right away from Tagliabue, who for years has passed along his best ideas to Rozelle. He knows the league needs time to recover from the rancorous selection process, but hopes it will emerge invigorated. "When you have this kind of turnover, you have new opportunity." says Tagliabue. "It's like a new administration. It's a clean slate, an opportunity to think bolder thoughts."
GROAN IF YOU LIKE
Tagliabue's hiring means that, for the first time ever, the commissioners of all four major pro sports are lawyers.
BATBOY OR BATMAN?
The players aren't the only graybeards active in the Senior Professional Baseball Association, the league for players 32 and older, which begins its first season this week in Florida. The batboy for the West Palm Beach Tropics is Irving Tuman, the former owner of a local nightclub. He's 72 years old.
In one of the stranger developments of the pro football season, security guards at Cleveland Stadium have begun confiscating dog bones and dog biscuits from fans. The crackdown stems from an incident during the Browns-Broncos game in Cleveland on Oct. 1. In the fourth quarter, fans near the east end zone—including the woofing bleacher creatures who call their section the Dawg Pound—showered the field with eggs, rocks, batteries and dog biscuits as Denver was lining up for a key third down on its own four-yard line. The barrage forced officials to move play to the other end of the field.
Two weeks later the Browns unveiled a 10-point program to reduce rowdiness. The program includes video surveillance of the crowd, restrictions on beer sales, and a ban on potential projectiles, such as eggs, rocks and dog biscuits. At first, guards let fans in with large foam-rubber dog bones—which would be waved, not thrown—but that only stirred resentment. "Other people were saying. "Why is that guy allowed to have his three-foot dog bone, and I'm not allowed to have my little biscuits?' " says Larry Staverman. the stadium's vice-president of operations. The rule now is, no biscuits, no bones—and no bones about it.
Similarly odd security measures have been taken at the University of Michigan, which last week barred marshmallows from its football stadium. During a game against Wisconsin on Oct. 7. Wolverine fans threw several thousand marshmallows onto the field and at each other. Ordinary marshmallows wouldn't have hurt much, but some of these were hardened marshmallow balls—who thinks up this stuff?—made by soaking the marshmallows and packing them together. From now on, anyone tossing a marshmallow will be tossed out of Michigan Stadium.
The highlight of this Saturday's Breeders' Cup Classic at Gulfstream Park should be the rematch of Sunday Silence and Easy Goer, but part of the showdown will be missing. Last week jockey Pat Valenzuela. who turned in brilliant winning rides on Sunday Silence in this year's Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, received a 60-day suspension by California racing stewards because urinalysis detected traces of cocaine in his system. The test was ordered after Valenzuela. who claimed to be ill, didn't show up for scheduled rides at Santa Anita. Valenzuela. 27, has a history of substance abuse.
Valenzuela's case parallels that of jockey Chris Antley, 23. who surrendered his license in September after admitting to New York racing officials that he was struggling with a drug problem. Like Valenzuela. Antley had had a spectacular year in the saddle. Between Feb. 8 and May 1 he rode at least one winner for 64 straight days, believed to be a U.S. record (SI, April 24). No one knows when or if Antley. who tested positive for cocaine a year ago. will be allowed to ride again.
The two cases underscore how pervasive cocaine is in racing. Easy Goer's jockey. Pat Day. and leading woman rider Julie Krone admit having used the drug in the past, and rumors continue to link other jockeys to it. The problem is doubly disturbing: Jockeys who use the drug could be blackmailed by their suppliers into fixing races. And no rider should be impaired by drugs while guiding a half-ton animal in close quarters at 40 mph.
The danger of racing is one reason cocaine is the drug of choice for jockeys. Cocaine induces feelings of confidence and invulnerability. It also suppresses the appetite and provides a surge of energy—effects highly desirable to athletes who often have to starve themselves to make weight. As Dominick Bologna, director of the New York Racing and Wagering Board's substance-abuse program, says, "If you had to invent a drug just for jockeys, cocaine would be it."
SIGN OF THE TIMES
The abortion debate seems to be going on everywhere. At Williams College, some members of the women's crew team are wearing T-shirts that read: I'D RATHER ROE THAN WADE.
SWIMMING IN POLITICS
When Chinese swimmer Yang Yang left his home in Beijing last March for a visit with his uncle in Hong Kong, he had no idea he was beginning an odyssey that would take him all the way to the U.S. and create a political controversy. Yang, 20, an individual-medley specialist on the Chinese national team, was still in Hong Kong on a visitor's pass in May, when the pro-democracy student demonstrations broke out in Beijing. Alarmed by reports of the ensuing government crackdown, Yang decided to remain in Hong Kong. When his visitor's pass expired in August, he applied for political asylum, reportedly identifying himself as a "secret member" of the Chinese Alliance for Democracy, a major pro-democracy group. Beijing demanded his return.
Authorities in Hong Kong, concerned about Yang's safety and conscious of the pro-democracy sentiment in the British colony, refused to hand him over. But to avoid provoking China too much—the Chinese will assume political sovereignty over Hong Kong in 1997—the authorities didn't grant Yang asylum, either. In late September he was jailed as an illegal immigrant for 11 days before pressure from international groups secured his release. A California organization called Silicon Valley for Democracy in China flew him to San Francisco on Oct. 3 to help him start a new life.
China was furious at Hong Kong for releasing Yang and warned that the incident would harm relations between the two. Indeed. China halted its usual practice of accepting illegal Chinese immigrants deported from Hong Kong. It resumed accepting the deportees only after Hong Kong apologized for the Yang affair.
Yang insists he is "not a political person." He had planned to enroll this fall at Tsinghua University in Beijing, where he would have studied English and prepared for the 1992 Olympics. Instead he finds himself trying to adjust to his new surroundings in the Bay Area, where he has been staying with various families. "There is so much space here, and so few people." he said last week through an interpreter. "You can't get anywhere without a car."
Yang has resumed working out at a club in Palo Alto. His times, while not spectacular, should be good enough to earn him a scholarship at a U.S. college. Though he has probably sacrificed any chance of making the 1992 Chinese Olympic team, he vows to return to his homeland someday. "Beijing is where I grew up," Yang says. "I will go back when it is safe and there is peace."
THEY SAID IT
•Serge Savard, Montreal Canadiens general manager, after hearing Luciano Pavarotti perform: "I guess you could say Pavarotti is the Wayne Gretzky of opera."
•Kenny Walker, New York Knick forward, on his four-inch high-rise haircut: "It makes me taller, and around here they pay by size."