Tagliabue has to win TV battle or face losing the war

PRO FOOTBALL

March 22, 1992|By VITO STELLINO

When the old guard and the new among NFL owners were squabbling over the election of a new commissioner three years ago, a member of the new guard suggested it was much ado about nothing.

"What difference does it make who's the commissioner?" he asked. "We're going to run the league."

The new guard won that battle when they blocked the election of Jim Finks and forced the selection of Paul Tagliabue. After the annual March meetings last week, it appears they may have won the war over who is going to run the league.

Since it takes a three-quarters majority to approve any action, the new guard owners can block anything they don't like.

Last week, for example, they gave a stunning rebuke to Tagliabue and Art Modell, the Cleveland Browns owner and head of the television committee, by refusing to approve an $8.5 million rebate for the networks in 1993 in exchange for a two-year contract extension.

For 30 years, the owners had rubber-stamped the TV recommendations of former commissioner Pete Rozelle and Modell.

They even went along in 1988, approving a three-year deal that provided each team about $17 million per year, or about $500,000 less than the team made in 1986.

But Tagliabue fell at least three votes shy of getting the rebate measure passed last week, so he scheduled a special meeting in Dallas on March 30.

If Tagliabue and Modell can't twist enough arms in the next 10 days, the rebate will be dead, but the owners will have to take their chances in 1994.

New guard owners such as Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys and Norman Braman of the Philadelphia Eagles oppose the rebate because they say the economy may turn around. Meanwhile, the owners are taking a chance that NBC, which says it's losing money on football, will carry out its threat to walk away from the NFL.

The larger issue is that the owners are turning their back on their negotiators.

That raises a question of how a new TV contract will be negotiated in 1994. Will the owners go along with it? What about the collective bargaining agreement talks? Even if the committee makes a deal after the upcoming trial, can it get it ratified? And there's also the "ironclad" agreement Tagliabue has to keep the New England Patriots from moving. Could he get 21 votes to challenge a move?

That's why the lobbying in the next 10 days will be so critical. If Tagliabue can't get the TV rebate passed, he'll become a virtual figurehead as a commissioner.

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Upon further review: The owners' decision last week to kill instant replay for one year didn't end the debate. It just intensified it.

The supporters had probably gotten a bit complacent, thinking that the owners would be reluctant to kill it after six years, even though many were unhappy with it.

Now the supporters will mount a new campaign -- especially if there's a big game decided by a bad call.

Last year, the replay officials reversed nine calls they shouldn't have and failed to reverse 12 they should have.

It's easy to understand blown calls on the field. The game is fast and the officials get one look. But the league never explained why so many calls were blown in the booth.

The most flagrant example was Emmitt Smith's drop in the Dallas-New York Giants game. The officials on the field ruled it a fumble and a Giants recovery, and the replay official failed to overturn that decision.

The only explanation that Jerry Seeman, the director of officials, could give was, "It may have looked obvious to some people and to some people it may not."

Seeman also said: "Nobody is ever going to be perfect. I tell my guys we're not going to be perfect, but we're always going to be excellent, and you're always going to be excellent when you attempt to be perfect."

It's uncertain what grading system Seeman is using, but the replay officials missed 21 of 102 plays. That's not excellent.

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All roads lead to Minneapolis: Since the Stanley Cup finals, World Series and Super Bowl have been held in Minneapolis in the past year, and the Final Four is coming up, it's appropriate that the NFL's legal Super Bowl -- an antitrust trial over free agency -- will start there June 15.

The league says it has to win the trial if it's going to go ahead with expansion this fall.

Both sides are confident going in. The players' attorneys insist the restrictions on free agents are an obvious antitrust violation.

Frank Rothman, the attorney who won the USFL trial for the NFL -- or "lost" only $3 in damages -- argued last week that the restrictions are reasonable to achieve competitive balance.

/# A Minneapolis jury will decide.

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Selling Baltimore: Herbert J. Belgrad, the chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority, felt the meetings were productive. Not only did he arrange the ESPN coverage for the exhibition game in Baltimore in August between the Miami Dolphins and New Orleans Saints, but he was pleased with the reaction he got from the NFL owners.

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