Tagliabue made it happen

John Steadman

December 23, 1992|By John Steadman

What may have been pro football's most intricate an sensitive diplomatic challenge, something akin to juggling a live grenade over a bonfire, has all but been resolved. A 5-year-old dispute that was filled with torment, rancor and frustration is drawing to a merciful ending.

Peace has come -- hopefully -- to these men of rediscovered good will. They have buried the hatchet but not in one another. Appropriately, this agreement is born at the time of the year when joy prevails and bitterness is minimized. The owners and players had been aligned on opposite sides of the ball in what became a prolonged and combative game in a labor tug-of-war that continued on laboriously for five years.

In the end, the players got the best of the agreement. They accomplished their foremost objective -- the right to a type of unprecedented free agency they often talked about but weren't sure would ever happen unless they started their own league.

If there's a hero to emerge, it has to be NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue. He inherited the complex problem and the knotted negotiations from his predecessor, Pete Rozelle. There was a full awareness on his part of the immensity of the issues and the seriousness of the fighting when he assumed the office of commissioner on Nov. 5, 1989, as Rozelle's successor.

Tagliabue had been involved in the league's legal affairs for 20 years, so he was a fully seasoned campaigner. From his standpoint, and where he gains immeasurable respect as a leader, is he had to continue engaging the NFL Players Association in various court cases, as they came to trial, while simultaneously working to make a deal with the same parties that would assure stability to the league.

In some ways, it was more difficult than the merger agreement between the National Football League and the All-American Conference, settled in late 1949, and a similar stipulation with the American Football League in 1966. All were vital to the growth and enhancement of pro football.

This, though, was vastly different in the way the battle lines were drawn. The players staffing the NFL teams were at odds, technically speaking, with the owners of the clubs they represented (those paying their salaries). Tagliabue didn't have a chance to pit the NFL against a natural enemy since, in this instance, it was more of a family fight but one that threatened the foundation of the sport and had far-ranging consequences.

For Baltimore, St. Louis and three other cities waiting in line for the awarding of two expansion franchises, it clears the way for the final process to happen. The league will have the subject on its agenda at the March meeting in Palm Springs but it seems more reasonable to expect it may be decided at a later session in Atlanta in late May.

Tagliabue impressed the owners last week in Dallas when he walked them through the entire process, and provided an updating of the issues. He offered all the options and ramifications as he saw them. Then he explained what might be open to the league if it elected to attempt to counter certain moves by the players association.

It was clear, a witness told The Evening Sun, that Tagliabue "was in full command and was well versed in all aspects of the proceedings." The owners have now gotten from the players what they could never gain in court -- a salary cap and an agreement to continue the draft, even though it probably will be reduced from 12 to seven rounds.

Any time a battle of this intensity, with such high stakes involved, can end up with both groups believing they got what they wanted -- a victory -- it means there's at least a chance for a productive relationship to emerge as they terminate legal hostilities and move on to the next phase. Neither side was buried. Both can walk away and ostensibly feel good about the outcome.

Sometime ago, when questioned, Tagliabue referred to the acquisition of a labor agreement as the "leading priority." No doubt. Otherwise, the league was handcuffed and, so far as expansion was concerned, it also was shackled in leg irons. It wasn't going anyplace.

Personally, Tagliabue is a competitor. Don't ever peg him an easy mark. He's not in favor of giving away the store. In working to bring about the agreement, which is virtually certain but not formally finalized, he had to convince the club ownerships he was on the right course and then build a consensus within that diverse constituency.

In 1986, when he was working for the NFL as an attorney, three years before becoming commissioner, he was among the strongest of voices in the league's trial with the U.S. Football League. Some of the owners wanted to settle, to cut a deal at the best price they could get. But Tagliabue insisted the NFL was on solid ground and could prevail.

That was the direction the NFL proceeded and, after a trial that lasted more than 40 days, all the league lost was $3 in damages. The USFL became an afterthought, extinct, almost a footnote in history. Now comes another major achievement on the legal battleground.

Obtaining an agreement with the players association clears the air and creates a positive outlook for all concerned, the owners, players and public. Tagliabue, to a large measure, as much as any commissioner ever could, made it happen.

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