Tagliabue's racial roots run deep

John Steadman

November 08, 1990|By John Steadman

HOW PAUL TAGLIABUE, the rookie commissioner of the National Football League, aggressively and conclusively dealt with Arizona failing to fulfill its part of the agreement to host the 1993 Super Bowl is an assertive decision that earns applause and respect.

But it was no upset that Tagliabue, in his first year on the job, made a strong move on behalf of civil rights. Arizona voters failed to approve a holiday for the commemoration of the late Martin Luther King's birthday, which was part of the deal to get the game and, thus, Phoenix forfeits its right to stage one of the most coveted events in all of American sports.

But the commissioner's ruling wasn't all that surprising to a man in Baltimore, an attorney, one Dwight Pettit. He goes back more than 20 years with Tagliabue and found it appropirate to relate an incident that underlines the character, sensitivity and understanding of Tagliabue.

Pettit had been the first black male enrolled at Aberdeen (Md.) High School. It didn't come easy. Segregation had him stonewalled. So he was forced to initiate the legal process. In 1958 it became known as "Pettit vs. the Board of Education of Harford County."

Pettit finally had the bolted doors opened and proceeded to become an exceptional student and athlete.

He later went to Howard University.

After law school, he was confronted with another racial problem. His father, George, a government employee, had been ignored for promotion at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds. Young Dwight felt the hurt and wanted to help.

He thought of a lawsuit but there was no precedent applicable to the situation since this was before the Civil Rights Act of 1971. As coincidence would have it, he read a newspaper story of another pending legal action that was similar to what he was trying to do -- to see the illegal indignities against his father were corrected.

The report mentioned the name of attorney Tagliabue of the firm of Covington and Burley, who was preparing litigation that had similarities to what he was endeavoring to achieve. "So I called this man, Tagliabue, who I didn't know and explained myself. He was immediately responsive," says Pettit.

"I visited him. I was young and naive. I asked him if I could borrow the file he had put together. He pointed to the wall and there were rows of bound copies of research, almost a library.

"There was no way I could carry the volumes out of there. But Paul let me utilize all his work and monitored my entire effort. Without him, I honestly wouldn't have been able to correct my father's discrimination predicament."

Before the U.S. Court of Claims and going against an assistant attorney general, Pettit won the fight by a 4-3 vote, resulting in a promotion of three pay grades and a settlement of around $100,000 from the government.

Pettit's dad was upgraded from an employment designation of "GS-11" to "GS-14," plus the fiscal award. Pettit, then and now, says it wouldn't have been possible if a white lawyer, Tagliabue, hadn't gone way out of the normal call of duty to provide direction and assistance.

The unusual twist is that when Tagliabue finally went to court with his case, he lost. The Supreme Court said the Court of Claims exceeded its legal authority but since the Pettit settlement had been finalized it could not be reversed.

"I sure remember Dwight Pettit," said Tagliabue. "I'm happy to hear he has been so successful with his practice in Baltimore. Hopefully, we'll see each other sometime soon."

Pettit applauded Tagliabue's reaction in denying Phoenix the Super Bowl after the game was earlier booked there with one proviso -- that the voters of Arizona agree to designating King's birthday a holiday, as happened in 47 of the 50 states.

"The way Paul reacted sounds just like him," praised Pettit. 'He's strong, fair and any fool following what he has done would realize how decisive he is when a ruling needs to be made."

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