Sure, Tagliabue was wrong, but advisers fumbled the ball, too

December 03, 1993|By John Steadman

Right now the approval rating of Paul Tagliabue, commissioner of the National Football League, is at the same level in Baltimore as that of Robert Irsay.

Too bad. He deserved much better because he's inherently a man of decency and profound intelligence. His home environment provided good direction as a child growing up and he was the recipient of an outstanding education.

He honestly should have done more with his life than become commissioner of the NFL. At the same time, he put himself in this targeted position and must accept the bombardment of criticism coming his way.

If subsequent decisions are going to be consistent with what happened in the NFL's expansion process, then he'll invariably be backed up into the end zone. Fumbles there are costly.

It was in Tagliabue's power to demonstrate to the world that he disapproved of Irsay's sacking and plundering of the Baltimore franchise in 1984. There is no defense for what happened then -- an all-time embarrassment to the NFL when Irsay mugged Baltimore and took the Colts to Indianapolis. It was so bad the league never tried to explain because it couldn't.

All Tagliabue needed to correct the wrongdoing was advocate an expansion team in Baltimore. It would have gone a considerable way toward cleaning up the horrible Irsay indignities. Unfortunately, he didn't do it.

This was the ideal window of opportunity. An available solution. Ready-made. Ideal. A way out. The league could finally remedy Irsay's dastardly act of the past.

A commissioner, like the office of the president of the United States, is no better than those around him. In the opinion of this reporter, he was poorly advised by the three men he assigned to the expansion effort. They were responsible for the preparation that led to the recommendation of Jacksonville. That's Jacksonville, Fla., not Jacksonville, Md.

The owners, in concert with what the commissioner wanted, ratified the Jacksonville move and thereby touched off an explosion of controversy. They brought it upon themselves.

The men handling expansion for Tagliabue should be out front catching the fire instead of having their leader torn apart with one mortar shell after another. His command staff, in this endeavor, comprised Roger Goodell, vice president of operations; Joe Ellis, director of club administration; and Neil Austrian, president.

All three are relatively new to the league -- smart, articulate, handsome but, possibly, endowed with bad judgment. It's surprising how many bright people make inept decisions.

Goodell, Ellis and Austrian, in all fairness, deserve a chance to succeed or fail on their own merits. Hopefully, Tagliabue won't fire them.

Let it be said they blundered in a way the proud NFL has never known before. This wasn't a snap decision, similar to what a quarterback has to do in calling the right play in a race against the clock. Errors, under those conditions, the pressure of a game situation, can be excused but the betrayal of Baltimore (the second time) came after long deliberation by the expansion force and Tagliabue's right to approve or disapprove.

The NFL's rejection of Baltimore happened following years of study, probing, evaluating, making demands and ongoing rhetoric. The NFL had more time than it needed, yet embarrassed itself in a colossal way.

Tagliabue commented to WMAR-TV sports director Scott Garceau that cities, addressing whether they want to apply for an NFL team, have the option of building plants or erecting museums. It poured a tank car of gasoline on the emotional fires.

Tagliabue didn't mean it the way it sounded. There's no venom in his voice, but the statement is in the record. We reviewed the tape four times and don't believe Tagliabue was dealing in sarcasm; merely trying to answer Garceau's question with an explanation that was terribly unfortunate in its corollary.

Part of Tagliabue's problem is that he comes off as a man of arrogance. That's regrettable. Maybe it's a habit he picked up presenting cases in a courtroom. Beyond that, he's not the ogre his attitude might suggest. Some critics, however, insist he's unfair and point to the hatchet job on Baltimore.

That's not how the man reveals himself in private conversation, yet admittedly it's a difficult explanation to advance in Baltimore -- where to link him with Irsay is close to the lowest form of insult inflicted upon another member of the human race.

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