The Big Man

Commissioner Paul Tagliabue is a tough ex-basketball star, a savvy lawyer hardened at the Pentagon and a fierce intellectual sometimes bored by his job wrangling rich owners and keeping their powerful league safe from all harm. Even in the NFL they call him ...
January 23, 2006

National Football League commissioner Paul Tagliabue presides over the best of times for the preeminent sports league in the world. No matter which metric you employ--revenue, ratings, attendance, merchandising--the NFL's stature as America's game is undisputed. Perhaps baseball was as popular in the 1950s in its Willie-Mickey-and-Duke heyday, but it wasn't as lucrative. Maybe the NBA during the Magic-Larry-Michael years was as central to the pop-cultural conversation, but it never captured the hearts, minds and pocketbooks of the heartland the way pigskin has. The NFL rules America to a degree unimaginable even 16 years ago, when Tagliabue, 65, succeeded Pete Rozelle as commissioner. Take league revenue: $5.7 billion this year versus $975 million in 1989. (Major League Baseball made $4.1 billion in 2004, the NBA about $3 billion.) Or franchise value: more than $819 million per team versus $100 million back then. (Major League Baseball franchises are worth, on average, about $332 million.) This February's Super Bowl XL will be watched by more than 130 million people in the U.S. alone.

In light of all this, it is easy to forget how rancorous the end of the Rozelle era was for professional football. Owners and players had endured two work stoppages, in 1982 and '87. The league had not expanded since '74 and, for the first time since the Eisenhower Administration, hadn't gotten a big bounce in its TV contract. The maverick owners and general managers who had built the league, including Tex Schramm, Al Davis and Jack Kent Cooke, were locked in a bitter dispute with players that had become an ugly class war--"Don't you see," Schramm barked during one negotiating session, "you're the cattle, we're the ranchers"--and Rozelle had rendered himself powerless to mediate. "I saw in Rozelle an unwillingness to bridge the labor-management divide," says Tagliabue, who was Rozelle's consigliere for two decades. "As the league grew, he not only didn't grow his role with it, he actually pulled back." By the time Rozelle stepped down, in 1989, the owners and the players negotiated primarily through depositions.

"You clearly saw that Rozelle's hands were tied when it came to labor issues," says Gene Upshaw, head of the NFL Players Association. "The change came when Paul became the commissioner." Among Tagliabue's first official acts was to centralize labor negotiations in his office; there has not been a work stoppage since. During that span baseball canceled a World Series, the NBA had to abbreviate its 1998-99 season and the NHL had to write off 2004-05.

Tagliabue's greatest accomplishments may have been instituting revenue sharing between players and owners, and maintaining the sharing of TV income among the franchises, to the tune of $3.73 billion per year. This bounty has led to competitive parity and franchise stability. Many of the owners hated the idea of sharing TV money with players. Some still do. Tagliabue equates his success in broadening revenue sharing as being similar to Nixon's opening relations with China. "It took a corporate lawyer to be a change agent," Tagliabue says, "because I could change [things] without appearing to be soft on communism, so to speak."

To keep that vast revenue stream flowing, Tagliabue says, there must be careful nurturing of what he calls the "sacred bond between football and fan." By the late '80s, when he took office, that bond was fraying. Owners had put newer stadiums and bigger markets ahead of any sentimental attachment to the traditional homes of franchises: The Raiders left Oakland for Los Angeles in '82, and the Colts left Baltimore for Indianapolis in '84. Tagliabue believed the NFL had to put an end to peripatetic franchises, yet from a business standpoint, why should an owner forsake the prospect of a new stadium with lucrative luxury boxes? Among his first acts as commissioner was to propose that the NFL enter into the stadium-construction business by establishing a fund to build new stadiums rather than rely on public money, the primary bait that cities were using to lure NFL franchises. The owners balked. Jack Kent Cooke, among others, condemned Tagliabue's plan as "mad, mad, mad" and argued that the "National Football League has no license, no authority, not even the vaguest reason to build stadiums."

Tagliabue disagreed, and he led the NFL into the stadium business, making it, in effect, one of the largest developers in the country as it helped finance new, high-tech, higher-revenue gridiron shrines such as Seattle's Qwest Field and Washington's FedEx Field (originally named, ironically, after Cooke). If it weren't for Tagliabue, we might be watching the Los Angeles Packers take on the Sacramento Chiefs this Sunday. He was also instrumental in keeping the New Orleans Saints from forsaking their deluged city, promising owner Tom Benson that the league would do whatever it could to keep the team in the Big Easy.

Yet for all the success the NFL has enjoyed under Tagliabue, it is remarkable how little credit has flowed to the commissioner, who, in the esteem of longtime football fans, will probably never be as loved as his predecessor, the dynamic and pioneering Pete Rozelle. Part of the blame falls on Tagliabue, who presides over press conferences with an almost imperial disdain. If he usually is, as many of his friends maintain, the smartest person in the room, he is sometimes too quick to let us all know that. "I'm bored," Tagliabue told me at his Park Avenue offices when I asked about revenue sharing. "I've been discussing this for 25 years. There are a lot of businesses more interesting than football--import-export, agriculture. As a business football is fairly simple--it's selling tickets; it's part box office and part movie studio. There are a lot of businesses more interesting as businesses."

Fair point. And in a one-on-one conversation he says this without a hint of haughtiness. But make the same observation in a room full of reporters, and you get a reputation for being cold and arrogant. "Those early press conference were awful," Chandler Tagliabue recalls of her husband's first meetings with the media. "Paul was impatient, and the press was used to Rozelle." Rozelle was famous for lighting a cigarette and telling reporters to "fire away." Tagliabue, stiff and distant behind a podium, is far more formal. Chandler describes him as a curious mixture of phlegmatic and short-tempered. "At the office he's very tough, impatient. I'll call him and ask him about something, and he'll bark, 'Who cares? It's a detail.' He can be frightening because he so seldom gets angry, but when he does...."

It is not that he's uninterested in the details of professional football. It's just that no one on earth has spent more time thinking about every aspect of professional football--not just about the players or the X's and O's, but about the public perception, the labor relations, the business, the substance-abuse policy, the potential in new media, the sometimes problematic halftime shows, the scheduling, everything--than Paul Tagliabue. And he can discuss every facet of the game with a rigorous, even intimidating intellect. This is a man, after all, who spent part of the 1960s working in the Department of Defense as a special assistant on nuclear-weapons-planning issues and the '70s as a corporate lawyer at Covington & Burling, the white-shoe firm at which he litigated cases that required him to delve into the minutiae of agricultural price supports and become, as he puts it, "the world's greatest specialist in the legal profession in high-heat-copying chemistry," whatever that is.

THE HOUSE on Jersey City's Columbia Avenue, just up from a railyard and a U.S. Postal Service depot, was a brown brick three-bedroom with a one-car garage in back. Next door was a vacant lot the family owned, which was where Charles Tagliabue Sr. parked the trucks for his contracting business. Paul was the second youngest of four sons born to Charles and Mary Tagliabue, second-generation Italian-Americans. The brothers were noted local athletes, like their father, who had played on a barnstorming basketball team until his own father died when Charles was just 18. "We made some iron brackets, and we made a backboard and a rim in the backyard," recalls older brother Robert, "and if you missed you had to chase the ball down the driveway. But we didn't chase it too much; we were pretty good." Paul, the best of the brood, went to Georgetown on a basketball scholarship. Despite the intense athletic competition among their sons, Charles and Mary placed tremendous emphasis on education. "My father used to say, 'Don't be a donkey,'" Paul says, "'Use your head, not your back.'" (Oldest brother Charles Jr. became the vice president of engineering at Lipton; Robert went into his father's business; and John is a correspondent for The New York Times, based in Paris.)

As a forward at Georgetown, Tagliabue averaged 10.9 points and 9.0 rebounds, the latter still good for ninth on the Hoyas' alltime list, ahead of NBA All-Stars Dikembe Mutombo and Alonzo Mourning. When asked if his athletic career gave him an advantage in his current job, Tagliabue smirked. "I think it helps a little, but I don't overestimate the idea that because I played basketball and ran track and field, I can go into a locker room and understand the dynamics right away."

"It helps," says Upshaw. "He never once did not accept the players as equals."

By the time Tagliabue attended New York University Law School on a scholarship in 1962, he had become as confident academically as he had always been athletically. He was at the top of his class, edited the law review and made many of the friends he still invites to the Super Bowl every year. "He was a lot of fun, but he worked hard," says Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Tagliabue's law-school roommate. "We cooked grilled-cheese sandwiches and put ketchup on them and had messy rooms.... He's a big, energetic, athletic guy. His size and presence and athletic skills have always made him a leader."

Bill Plunkett, another law-school friend of Tagliabue's, recalls waiting in line for books when another student asked if they wanted to play some ball. The threesome headed over to the courts on West Fourth Street and got into a very physical game; at one point Tagliabue took a hard foul that sent him sprawling. "That's how the game is played in New York," the offender told Tags.

Tagliabue nodded, dusted himself off and told Plunkett, "Next time down the court, throw it up near the rim."

Plunkett did, and as Tags came down with the ball, he laid a hard elbow right into the thug's nose. "Paul can play very tough," says Plunkett. "Don't let the soft-spoken, smooth lawyer fool you."

Tagliabue met his wife, Chandler Minter of Milledgeville, Ga., while at law school. She graduated from the Georgia State College for Women with a degree in English and French in 1964 before moving to New York City. Sharp featured and sharper tongued, she was initially dismissive of the quiet but confident third-year law student when they met at a party. "For some reason he was pretending he was from Tennessee," she recalls.

The two were married in 1965, and they moved to Washington, D.C., that same year. Chandler, who would eventually earn a master's degree in English from George Washington, attempted to educate her young attorney in arts and letters. "He hadn't really read any fiction before me," she says. "When we met, he began to make an effort, but he's still a nonfiction guy."

They have two children: Andrew, 37, a corporate headhunter in New York City who lives with his partner Mark Jones; and Emily, 34, a former schoolteacher who is married to John D. Rockefeller V, the son of Senator John D. (Jay) Rockefeller (D., W.Va.), and has two daughters. Paul and Chandler were honored in October by the New York chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays for their public support of their son--the commissioner spoke from the dais of his love for Andrew and Mark. All three generations gather annually at the family's summerhouse in Maine.

IN A LUXURY box at Giants Stadium, behind the western end zone, Paul Tagliabue sat sprawled in a stadium seat, his long legs draped over the back of the empty seat in front of him, his brown, tasseled loafers resting on its armrests. As he watched Eli Manning guide the Giants down the field against the Saints, he spoke about the almost religious role football plays in American society and about his position as the guardian of that sacred trust. On evenings like this, under hot lights in packed stadiums while millions tune in across the country, it is hard to not be stunned at the scope of the NFL. Even Tagliabue admits to sometimes marveling at it all and wondering about the significance attached to men playing a game. But he also argues that football is unique among all sports in its "contrived adversity"--his favorite description of the game. He believes fans relate to players because they push themselves to the limits emotionally and physically. "Football develops all the qualities that are needed to be successful in life," Tagliabue says. "That, and it looks great on television."

Tagliabue doesn't overestimate his accomplishments; he knows that the NFL's success is, in part, "an accident of history ... the right game, with the right weekly schedule of contests, during the right season of the year." He believes all that gives football a natural advantage over other sports because, he says, the greatest threat to any professional sport is overexposure. "Football, because of the natural limitations of the game, resists that." He points to the current glut of televised NBA and Major League Baseball games as examples of sports that have become too "easy." More than 120 million people tune in to the NFL every Sunday. Would fans watch more professional football? Absolutely. But more televised games would undercut the value of the league.

Despite being a childhood baseball fan, he dismisses the national pastime as "about as exciting as standing in line at the supermarket. Baseball doesn't test anything but your ability to withstand boredom."

Perhaps trying to soften the blow he's just landed on baseball's chin, he broadens his attack. "Look," he says with a sigh, "I think the popularity of all sports in our society is a measure of how much disposable income there is and how much interest we have in the unnecessary."

Yet, as the man paid to keep football on top, he must be forever wary of threats to gridiron supremacy. And they come from all directions: Terrell Owens's agent, Al Davis's lawyers, Janet Jackson's breasts. "We chose to work with the wrong people on that one," Tagliabue says of the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show in which a "wardrobe malfunction" launched a million headlines. "Not only was her flashing inappropriate, I thought the whole show was misogynistic crap."

When ESPN aired Playmakers in 2003, the football show about a fictitious professional football team of drug abusers, womanizers and wife beaters, he took a similarly hard line, calling Michael Eisner, then CEO of Disney, the parent company of ESPN, and decrying the show as the "worst racial stereotyping I have ever seen."

Eisner brought up North Dallas Forty and told Tagliabue he was overreacting. Tagliabue told Eisner he also objected to the show because it was clearly "knocking off our league. This is clearly about the NFL." When a corporate lawyer who happens to control one of your main TV properties--Disney also owns ABC, which then televised Monday Night Football--says you may be violating his copyright, you listen. ESPN canceled Playmakers after 11 episodes.

Exerting similar influence in his primary function of "herding cats," as Tagliabue puts it, is sometimes a little harder because he must get three fourths of the NFL's owners to agree with any new policies or plans. "You've got 32 owners who are very independent," says Detroit Lions owner William Clay Ford. "It's a tough group to manage because most of these people are used to speaking and not listening." As a consensus builder, Tagliabue benefits from his time as a corporate lawyer, when he learned it was better to settle some contentious cases than risk a day in court. He also learned that the secret to negotiating with some of the world's toughest dealmakers--Fortune 500 CEOs and NFL owners--is to listen. "The main thing in any negotiation is to never assume you know the other side's position. Listen first. Don't do anything. Just sit there and listen."

His indomitable patience is a virtue. "He doesn't overreact," says Pittsburgh Steelers chairman Dan Rooney. For the owners it is flattering to have an intellect as formidable as Tagliabue's at their beck and call. "It makes the owners feel smarter than they actually are," says one league employee, and it allows Tagliabue to get some good fiscal medicine down their throats. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has tangled with the commissioner several times, notably over whether clubs should be allowed to cut their own sponsorship deals. "We've had our issues ... ," Jones says. "He is a very professional person, and he is very controlled. Certainly, he is imposing. Certainly, we've raised our voices with each other. And he is very effective when he raises his voice."

Other critics say that he has been too effective arguing the owners' position on certain issues, such as virtually eliminating guaranteed contracts in the NFL. "I don't have any problem with where we are in terms of guaranteed contracts," he says, his voice rising. "Guaranteed contracts don't do anything except take money from a guy who is playing and give it to a guy who isn't."

He cites the NBA. "Are those players slacking? Absolutely. Football is a sport that is way too tough to take a chance--it comes back to my contrived-adversity point. Since this is contrived adversity, you have to maintain the incentive to put up with the adversity. I acknowledge it's not a prolabor stance, but it is a properformance stance."

With the CBA set to expire at the end of the 2007 season (with the last year uncapped), Tagliabue faces perhaps his toughest negotiation, as owners and players fight over the nearly $6 billion generated annually by the NFL (players currently reap 65% of that) and over future revenue from the Internet, luxury boxes and stadium advertising. The owners would like to keep most of it, and they expect Tagliabue, to whom they pay $8 million a year, to deliver.

Upshaw, negotiating for the players, worries that if the league goes into next season without a deal, the hope for a new agreement will fade as players anticipate negotiating contracts without a salary cap. "Once that genie comes out of the bottle," he says, "you can't put it back in there. This isn't the NHL. We know there is over $24 billion in TV money coming in."

Tagliabue is more sanguine. "We'll get it done. There's too much at stake, and all parties recognize that ... or at least we should."

AFTER NYU, Tagliabue worked for Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara on nuclear-weapons policy. He made no friends in the hawkish Pentagon when he founded an in-house chapter of Ban Handguns America and began circulating gun-control literature. "The guys I was working for started [calling me a] 'f------ communist nut.'" Still, Tagliabue describes his three years at the Department of Defense as the best of his life. "I learned how the real world works. I learned how to manipulate procedures, how to use the media." The two great lessons he took away from his time at the Pentagon were 1) "No matter how well designed the system is, monkeys still run the system," and 2) "Whoever is most critical to your plan will be in the crapper when you really need him."

By the late '60s Tagliabue was looking to apply his law degree more profitably and, as an aside, adds that he was not looking forward to working with the incoming Nixon Administration. Yet if Covington & Burling, the firm that hired him away from Defense, hadn't granted him two weeks off before he started so that he could paint his new house in Bethesda, Md., Tagliabue might today be the CEO of Proctor & Gamble instead of commissioner of the NFL. The firm had planned to throw their promising new attorney into a big antitrust case, defending P&G's purchase of Clorox. Instead, when Tagliabue finally showed up, Hamilton Carothers, the longtime general counsel for the NFL, was looking for someone to help with the firm's NFL practice, in particular Jets quarterback Joe Namath's involvement in a nightclub with ties to notorious gamblers. Tagliabue quickly caught Rozelle's eye and spent the next 20 years as his primary legal adviser through cases including the USFL antitrust case, the Oakland Raiders' lawsuit and various labor disputes. As the business of football became steadily more litigious through the '70s and the '80s, Rozelle's first question when confronted by yet another legal challenge was most often, "What does Paul think?"

When Rozelle stepped down, Tagliabue was the easy choice to run a league increasingly beset by legal and business problems. Yet old-line owners supported longtime football man Jim Finks, the president and G.M. of the New Orleans Saints, for 11 ballots before finally relenting. In November 1989 Paul Tagliabue became the eighth commissioner of the NFL.

WE DON'T really go to football games," sighed Chandler Tagliabue, standing at a buffet table under a giant white tent next to Azteca Stadium in Mexico City. "We go to cocktail parties at football games."

The Tagliabues were in Mexico for a game between the 49ers and the Cardinals, and Chandler was watching her husband chat with John York, owner of the 49ers; Bill Bidwell, owner of the Cardinals; and Lawrence Tanenbaum, owner of the NBA's Toronto Raptors, near a bar piled high with a pyramid of margaritas. Nearby were huge platters of tacos and chicken wings. (Traveling with Tagliabue means you are seldom more than 20 feet from prodigious quantities of chicken wings; they are indigenous to the tailgate-style gatherings he must so frequently frequent.) Tagliabue is an exceedingly social creature, and after following him through a typical week, one is struck by how much of his job is, as he says, "ceremonial"--small talk, plates of finger food, dinner-party chatter, impromptu little speeches in praise of elementary school projects and charitable donations. And more chicken wings.

Tagliabue glides through these events with a grace that most would never have predicted during his first prickly days in office. And he has learned to massage the facts a little to make these flesh-pressing encounters flow by smoothly. On the plane down he had complained that every time he began reading Distant Neighbors, one of the seminal texts on U.S.-Mexico relations, he never got more than 20 pages into it. Yet at a luncheon a few hours after landing in Mexico City, he made a speech at the home of lawyer Alexis Rovzar, the chairman of the NFL Mexico Advisory Board, in which he said he had read Distant Neighbors and then recounted an anecdote from the book. An anecdote from the beginning of the book. "He has a way of embellishing," says Chandler, laughing. "He can read part of a book and think he's read the whole book. At lunch Paul said he'd been studying Spanish for a year. My God! He's had one lesson." She shakes her head. "With Paul, experiences have a way of ... enlarging."

The commissioner's broad range of interests--he expounded for a while on corn subsidies during the flight down--has employees at NFL headquarters similarly "enlarging" their experiences. "When Paul [took over], we all got The Economist and pretended to read it," says NFL executive VP of communications and public affairs Joe Browne, "so that when he walks into your office, you have it right in front of you."

After the tailgating, Tagliabue walked onto the field at Azteca Stadium along with various team executives and NFL officials, past the Cardinals receivers running practice routes in the end zone and the punters pooching kicks. He marched in his heavy, upright gait past the cheerleaders and their pom-poms and then skirted a crowd that had formed around a character billed as the smallest man in Mexico, who was wearing a 49ers uniform. To his great surprise Tagliabue was applauded, which is far more reaction than his entrance would elicit at any NFL stadium in the U.S.

The Mexican NFL fans cheered wildly that night about everything: the dwarf, the commissioner, the game, whatever. The crowd--the attendance was 103,467, the largest ever for a regular-season NFL game--is testimony to the NFL's success in marketing the game in Mexico, where the league has played exhibition games since 1978. International expansion is another of those ideas that Tagliabue is easily bored by, although he dutifully tosses out the usual boilerplate about a future with teams on three continents and a playoff system pitting the champions of each continent against each other. "It might happen in your lifetime," he said when I expressed some skepticism. "Of course, you're much younger than me."

Up in the luxury box atop the stadium, Tagliabue sat with the mayor of Mexico City and drank coffee while the Cardinals trounced the 49ers. The commissioner stayed until the fourth quarter and then left the stadium in a motorcade of black Lincoln Navigators. He seldom stays for an entire game and rarely stays much past halftime. "I can't remember the last time we sat through a whole regular-season game," says Chandler. "I'd like to do that sometime. Just sit and watch the whole thing."

The one game the Tagliabues always watch in its entirety is the Super Bowl. This year it's in Detroit, and when the teams take the field and the stadium lights are casting the scene in their bright, TV-ready glow and the broadcast is going out to viewers around the world, Paul Tagliabue will be watching from a luxury box with a dozen of his old friends. At times like that, during the game itself, the commissioner can finally relax and enjoy America's preeminent spectacle of contrived adversity.

Despite being a childhood fan, Tagliabue dismisses baseball "as about as exciting as standing in line at the supermarket."

"Paul can play very tough," says one old friend. "Don't let the soft-spoken, smooth lawyer fool you."

One league employee says NFL owners enjoy having Tagliabue at their beck and call. "It makes them feel smarter than they actually are."

"At the office, he's very tough, impatient," says Chandler. "He can be frightening because he so seldom gets angry, but when he does...."

PHOTOPHOTOGRAPH BY HOWARD SCHATZ PHOTOCOURTESY OF THE TAGLIABUE FAMILYCharles Tagliabue, a contractor, told Paul (below, age six) and his other sons, "Don't be a donkey. Use your head, not your back." PHOTOCOURTESY OF GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITYTagliabue, who got an athletic scholarship, ranks ahead of two NBA All-Stars on the list of Georgetown's career rebound leaders. PHOTOCOURTESY OF THE NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUETagliabue (right) was Rozelle's consigliere for 20 years, through the USFL antitrust case, labor disputes and the Raiders lawsuit. PHOTOHOWARD SCHATZChandler (left) says socializing is a big part of Paul's job. "I can't remember the last time we sat through a whole regular-season game."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)