Search

On The Spot PAUL TAGLIABUE WRESTLED WITH WHETHER THE NFL SHOULD PLAY ON, AND HIS DECREE SHAPED THE SPORTS WEEKEND

Sept. 24, 2001
Sept. 24, 2001

Table of Contents
Sept. 24, 2001

The Week That Sports Stood Still

On The Spot PAUL TAGLIABUE WRESTLED WITH WHETHER THE NFL SHOULD PLAY ON, AND HIS DECREE SHAPED THE SPORTS WEEKEND

After 14 hours of meetings ended just before 10 p.m. on
Wednesday, Sept. 12, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue strode
purposefully out of the league's offices at 280 Park Avenue and
into the cool Manhattan night--and the smell of smoke. Tagliabue
coughed occasionally as he walked, his lungs collecting
particulates from a barely visible low cloud, wafting like the
London fog four miles uptown from ground zero. He noticed that
his exposed skin was starting to collect particles. Although he
may have had the weight of the suddenly inconsequential sports
world on his shoulders, with the clock ticking while he decided
whether to play Sunday's and Monday's games, Tagliabue had
another matter to tend to first: the birthday dinner of his
wife, Chan, at the midtown apartment of their son, Drew, a
celebration that had started without him a couple of hours
earlier.

This is an article from the Sept. 24, 2001 issue Original Layout

After dinner Chan and Paul walked the 23 blocks uptown to their
East Side apartment. He coughed some more. His eyes burned. He
surveyed the surreal scene--streets nearly empty, air painfully
thick, a palpable uncertainty hanging over the future of New York
and the country--and said to himself, We're not playing football
this weekend.

That decision, unanimously supported by his kitchen cabinet of
three owners and Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL
Players Association, the next morning, gave a waffling sports
world its sense of direction. America would pray, not play. In
the wake of Tagliabue's announcement, Major League Baseball
postponed games through the weekend, the Big 12 and the
Southeastern Conference postponed all weekend sports events, the
NHL ordered that no preseason games be played until Monday,
NASCAR and the Indy Racing League postponed their Sunday races,
the LPGA canceled its tournament, and Major League Soccer
canceled its remaining six games of the regular season.

Last Saturday afternoon, with a nip in the Manhattan air and
perfect football weather up and down the East Coast, Tagliabue
sat in the same conference room in which he had discussed his
options with league executives and owners days earlier, and he
talked about his walk home on Wednesday night. "We got to 59th
and Fifth Avenue," he recalled. "It was so bad, so eerie. I saw
two young cops on the corner. I went up to them and said, 'You
guys are doing an incredible job.' I shook their hands."

Tagliabue paused. His bottom lip quivered, just as President
Bush's had on Thursday when he choked up while talking about
whipping terrorism. It wasn't the first time last week that the
iron commissioner, a man who often seems so dismissive and cold
in the public eye, fought to keep his emotions in check. During a
90-minute interview with SI, he explained how he came to his
decision.

TUESDAY When the second plane hit the World Trade Center,
Tagliabue was in his 17th-floor office on a conference call with
the United Way. When the Pentagon was hit a short time later, the
parties abruptly ended the call. Upshaw phoned Tagliabue from
Washington to see if everyone in New York was safe and assure him
that the NFLPA staff was O.K. "At some point--not now--we need to
start thinking about the games," Tagliabue told Upshaw.

First, however, there was the matter of tending to the league's
staff of more than 400, spread over five floors. Who knew what
might happen next? At 11:10 a.m., Tagliabue appointed floor
captains, fire wardens and an individual to oversee a
place-to-stay system in the event that commuting employees were
stuck in Manhattan overnight or longer.

Like so many other businesses, the NFL also had to address the
possibility that staffers might have family members who were
injured, dead or lost in the rubble. The league would have two
reported missing: Thomas Collins, whose wife, Julia, works in NFL
Properties, and Diane Lipari, whose husband, Ed Tighe, is an NFL
Management Council lawyer. Julia was in Denver on business. Ed
had bolted from his office and gone to the disaster site. While
he was explaining to a police officer why he had to get through a
barricade, the south tower--in which Lipari worked, on the 92nd
floor--collapsed. Tighe returned to his office and began sobbing
uncontrollably. "Pray for a miracle, Ed," Tagliabue told him, and
he, too, began to cry. When the commissioner learned that a
rosary was to be said every half hour around the corner at St.
Patrick's Cathedral, he told employees that attending the prayer
service would be the best thing they could do for Tighe. Many
staffers, including Tagliabue, attended a 5:30 mass with Tighe.

In the middle of the tumult Tagliabue took 10 minutes to sketch
out what he considered the league's alternatives for the coming
weekend. Although he had his aides check into the possibility of
moving the New York Giants' game against the Green Bay Packers
from Giants Stadium to Lambeau Field, he never intended that the
Giants or the New York Jets play so soon after the disaster. His
options: 1) cancel Week 2 games and play a 15-game regular
season; 2) postpone the games, throw out the wild-card round of
the playoffs on Jan. 5 and 6, and reschedule the Week 2 games for
those days; 3) give the Jets, Giants, Washington Redskins and
possibly Pittsburgh Steelers the week off, but play the other 11
or 12 games on Monday or Tuesday; 4) schedule the 11 or 12 games
at a time on Sunday so as not to interfere with a possible
national religious service; 5) start those games at the same time
on Sunday, 2 p.m. EDT, giving the U.S. what might be viewed as a
three-hour break from the tragedy. However, the networks could
not guarantee that they would televise any games. Tagliabue would
discuss these options in a conference call with a select group of
owners the following day.

That night an owner, whom Tagliabue won't identify, called him at
home to say the NFL had to play on. Terrorists, the owner said,
would win if the NFL went dark. Upshaw called too, saying the 31
player reps had scheduled a conference call for 9 p.m. on
Wednesday to get their feelings on whether they thought the games
should be played. In truth, only one vote counted, and the man
who had it tossed and turned most of Tuesday night.

WEDNESDAY In his Washington office, shortly after 9 a.m., Upshaw
fielded his first call from a concerned player. "We can't play,
Gene," Jacksonville Jaguars wideout Keenan McCardell said. "We
hear what the coaches are saying in meetings, but we can't
focus." Another call, from Buffalo Bills player rep Phil Hansen,
landed in Upshaw's voice mail: "Lots of our players are saying
we shouldn't play, out of respect for our country and our
countrymen." Upshaw called Tagliabue and said, "Paul, this thing
is picking up steam."

Players on the New York teams sounded rebellious. "I don't
understand why we're here today. I think all games should be
canceled this weekend," said Jets quarterback Vinny Testaverde.

On the other hand, Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick said the
league should play. A Bush aide told the league's government
liaison, senior vice president Joe Browne, that the NFL had to
make its own decision. In two conference calls with Tagliabue,
league owners were split: Don't let the terrorists control us,
some argued; the nation must have time to grieve, said others.
Tagliabue got his best advice of the day from New York governor
George Pataki, who through an intermediary told the
commissioner, Yes, life must go on, but not necessarily with
parties and football games so soon after such a huge loss of
life. Some owners could sense that Tagliabue was leaning toward
a dark Sunday when he told them on one of the conference calls,
"This is not the Kennedy assassination. This is not Pearl
Harbor. It's worse."

Early in the evening Ravens owner Art Modell called with the same
advice he had given Tagliabue's predecessor, Pete Rozelle, in
1963 when Rozelle struggled with whether to play games two days
after JFK was killed. "Paul," Modell said, "I'm imploring you to
cancel the games."

On the players' conference call, representatives from the New
York teams were passionate about not suiting up. "It's one thing
to see it on TV," Giants cornerback Jason Sehorn said. "It's
another thing, every day, to look from our practice field and see
the towers gone. And it's another thing to even consider playing
while they're still pulling people out of the rubble." The player
reps voted 17-11 (two teams weren't represented and one
abstained) for Tagliabue to call off the games.

THURSDAY New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft was in favor of
playing until he flipped on the TV at 4 a.m. in his suburban
Boston home. By Sunday, he reasoned, people would be yearning
for a release. "But when I saw that Mayor Giuliani had ordered
6,000 body bags, I thought we should give people time to
grieve," he said.

Tagliabue awoke at 4:45. He walked into his kitchen, sat down at
the table, took out a legal pad, thought for a few minutes and
wrote these words: "This week we have witnessed despicable acts.
Within our NFL family, loved ones are missing. Such events try
our hearts and souls. These events and experiences will deeply
affect all of us--not just for now but for years, lifetimes,
generations. As a nation and as individuals, we will respond in
many ways on many fronts. Supporting, respecting, grieving,
learning, becoming closer, more resolute, stronger. We will
carry on--not move on and forget--but carry on.... We will not
play NFL games this weekend."

Later that morning Tagliabue got the news from Upshaw about the
player vote the previous night. It didn't surprise him. During a
conference call that included his kitchen cabinet--Upshaw, Giants
co-owner Wellington Mara, Steelers owner Dan Rooney and Carolina
Panthers owner Jerry Richardson--he asked Upshaw to brief the
others on the players' stance. Then he made his announcement.
"We're not playing," Tagliabue said at 10:45 a.m.

Three minutes after the league informed the Associated Press of
its decision, rumors of a bomb threat at a building across the
street from league offices resulted in the evacuation of the
NFL's building as well.

EPILOGUE The league would decide soon enough to cut out the
wild-card playoffs and use that January weekend to make up the
Week 2 schedule. That would mean a reduction from six to four in
the number of playoff teams for each conference, but that isn't
much of a sacrifice, considering that since the NFL went to a
12-team playoff format in 1990, no fifth or sixth seed has
reached the Super Bowl, and only two have reached a conference
championship game. Shrinking the playoff field would normally
send coaches and owners over the edge. Last weekend nary a
negative peep was heard.

A more immediate concern was security. Last Saturday, Tagliabue
met with NFL director of security Milt Ahlerich to discuss
provisions for the resumption of games on Sept. 23. He also asked
Lew Merletti, the Cleveland Browns' vice president of stadium
operations and security and a former director of the Secret
Service, to serve on a new security task force. Tagliabue said
the league had learned valuable security lessons over the last
decade, during the gulf war in 1991 and following the bombings of
the World Trade Center in '93 and the federal building in
Oklahoma City in '95. "I'm very, very sure our stadiums will be
secure for the players and the fans," he said.

He was asked if he could envision any scenario in which the
league would not play this weekend. "Yeah," he said quietly. "I
can envision things, but I don't care to go into them. They're
for the President to worry about."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY GEORGE TIEDEMANN/GT IMAGES Dual purpose The parking lot at Giants Stadium served as a staging site for equipment used in the rescue effort.COLOR PHOTO: DUANE BURLESON/AP Painful reminder A flag flying at half-staff greeted Lions players as they left the practice field on the day after the attacks.COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON Tagliabue (left) said, "This is not the Kennedy assassination. This is not Pearl Harbor. It's worse."
"When I saw that Mayor Giuliani had ordered 6,000 body bags, I
thought we should give people time to grieve," said Kraft.