Contract talks teach Tagliabue costly lessonCall it the...


September 20, 1992|By VITO STELLINO

Contract talks teach Tagliabue costly lesson

Call it the education of a commissioner.

Paul Tagliabue had been on the job less than five months in March 1990 when he enthusiastically announced that the $3.6 billion TV contract he had just negotiated would give the league the money to reach a new contract with the players.

A reporter then questioned whether more money would lead to a deal. "What's money got to do with it? They want free agency and you won't give it to them," he said.

"I don't agree with your premise," Tagliabue responded with a combination of self-confidence and naivete about what it would be like negotiating with the players.

Two and a half years later, after the latest court decision, Tagliabue still has no agreement, but a better understanding of how difficult the task is. He's now comparing the negotiations with the Vietnam peace talks. In effect, he's now waist-deep in the big muddy.

"It's like Vietnam where they spent two years [negotiating] on the shape of the table," he said.

Although he still talks about getting a deal, he seems more wary. He doesn't even put all the blame on the players for the impasse. He said both sides tend to get entrenched in their positions. He admitted the owners did it when they got an appellate court victory in 1989.

"Frankly, I think it tended to harden the attitude of some people within the league," he said.

But even when he seemed to be trying to extend an olive branch and said it's natural to get a "lot of exaggeration" after a verdict, he couldn't resist in engaging in some of it.

He talked about the "sham decertification of the union, the phony decertification of the union." He said the jury's verdict throwing out Plan B "is very vulnerable on appeal under the law."

On top of that, when he was asked if the owners had to increase their offer now that Plan B had been ruled illegal, he said, "I don't think so."

If the players didn't accept it before a favorable verdict, it seems unlikely they'll accept it now. These two sides seemed destined for a long court fight.

Both sides can continue doing business as usual while all this is going on. There'll be no strikes or lockouts.

But Tagliabue made one critical mistake in May 1990 when he was still confident of getting a labor deal. He got the owners to vote to start the expansion process and even set out a timetable.

The result was he got hopes up and got the cities to spend money on their presentations. Now he may not be able to deliver.

If he can't get a deal in the next year, his only alternative would be to try to get 21 votes for expansion without a deal. That will be tough.

Pulling the plug on expansion would be a public-relations fiasco for the NFL. If Sen. Al Gore, a longtime expansion advocate, becomes vice president, the league likely will face a lot of political pressure.

By tying expansion to a labor deal -- one has nothing to do with the other since the league expanded without one in 1976 -- Tagliabue took his first step in the big muddy. He may have a hard time getting out.

The spin doctor

Tagliabue tried to put the best spin on the expansion delay by saying the expansion cities "share the view that an unsettled labor situation is not the right time to move ahead on expansion."

When he was asked if anybody in Baltimore shared that view, he said, "I've had some indirect communications from people in the Baltimore expansion effort who are very concerned about the timing of expansion in relation to this verdict. By indirect, I mean through intermediaries."

He declined to identify these Baltimore people, and a spokesman indicated he wasn't referring to the ownership groups.

Herbert Belgrad, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority, responded, "I can tell you without any question that nobody from the Baltimore expansion effort has expressed any opinion to the commissioner's office other than urging them to name two cities as promptly as possible."

Tagliabue will never sell the idea that Baltimore doesn't want to move ahead on expansion.

He asked for it

Ted Marchibroda can't say he didn't know what he was getting into when he signed on to coach the Colts earlier this year.

After all, he already had been fired once as Colts coach by owner Bob Irsay. But Marchibroda wanted to be a head coach again. He was nearing the end of his career and had no other alternatives.

Unfortunately, he's finding out again just what it's like to work for Irsay.

For example, Irsay is very aware that Jack Trudeau has a clause in his contract calling for him to get $10,000 for every game he starts and wins.

So a week ago, after Trudeau was activated, Irsay suggested that Marchibroda start Tom Tupa and play him one series. That way, Trudeau wouldn't get the $10,000 even if he won the game.

Being the good company man, Marchibroda even tried to sell this idea to Trudeau. Trudeau's reaction was predictable. He marched into the office of general manager Jimmy Irsay, Irsay's son, and complained loudly.

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