No saint, Jones looks good next to Tagliabue's NFL

September 22, 1995|By JOHN EISENBERG

Turning Jerry Jones into a sympathetic figure is perhaps the most amazing achievement of Paul Tagliabue's career as NFL commissioner.

OK, maybe "sympathetic" is putting it a little strong. The smug, egomaniacal Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys, is hardly huggable. A group of his season ticket holders has filed a class-action lawsuit over his handling of parking passes. He is frugal with scouts, secretaries and other little people, according to Jimmy Johnson. An unauthorized biography, in the works, reportedly portrays him as a philanderer.

What a swell guy!

You would think it was impossible to turn him into a rooting interest in any endeavor, yet he is the one to root for in his "war" against Tagliabue and the other NFL owners.

That commish, what a magician.

First, he loses Los Angeles, gains Jacksonville and calls it progress.

Now, he turns Jerry Jones into a good guy.

Not everyone will agree he's done that, of course. We're admittedly biased about the commish here in Bawlmer. He operated the shady expansion deal of 1993, then suggested we take the money for a football stadium and build a museum.

Nice work in Charlotte, pal.

But it's also true that he presides over the most morally corrupt league in sports.

Advantage, Jones. In a photo finish, let's say.

What's really too bad is that their war, which culminated with NFL Properties filing a $300 million lawsuit against Jones this week, isn't the big deal that Tagliabue and the other owners would have you believe it is.

They seem to fear that Jones, with his recent side deals with Nike and Pepsi, intends to tear down the foundation of revenue sharing on which the NFL rests, revolutionizing the way the league operates.

If only that were so.

Jones would be a hero then.

The truth is that Jones is just out to make himself more famous and more money, not in that order. Hardly a surprise.

Thinking that Jones might wish to do away with revenue sharing is Chicken Littlism at its worst. Every owner gets $42 million from the league office every year, 93 percent of which comes from national TV contracts. (The other 7 percent comes from NFL Properties.) Jones, nothing if not a shrewd businessman, doesn't want to touch that big ball of TV money, which all but guarantees a profit -- 16-0 or 0-16.

That's the problem with the NFL's system of revenue sharing. It gives these owners so much money -- two-thirds of their revenue, in some cases, and more than the salary cap payroll limits -- that they have no reason to field a winning team. If anything, spending big money on talented players hurts the bottom line.

Call it the dirty little secret of the world's most popular sports league: Many of the owners don't care if they win or lose, and they'll field lousy teams year after year to prove it. (See: Bucs, Falcons, Cardinals and others.) It's an incredibly cynical arrangement that abuses loyal fans and borders on fraud.

If Jones' idea was to do away with all these league-wide "national" contracts and force teams to raise their own revenue and basically operate independently, that would be wonderful. Teams would actually have to work for a living. The lousy ones would suffer for their shortcomings at the bottom line. Accountability: what a concept.

But alas, Jones isn't a radical visionary, just a flashy hustler trying to pad his kitty because, well, he can.

Tagliabue isn't upset because of what Jones has done; Patriots owner Robert Kraft cut a similar side deal with Pepsi and no one cared. No, Tagliabue is upset because Jones announces his "subversive" deals on national TV, sends out press releases and struts around the sidelines with Nike chairman Phil Knight.

Then he insults Tagliabue when the commissioner cries foul.

This war is about ego, nothing more than that. Jones revels in the attention. He's bigger than Al Davis now. And Tagliabue is a snippy lawyer who can't stand being rebuked.

Money has nothing to do with it, or at least very little. The $300 million lawsuit is just a scare tactic that probably will never reach court. The NFL certainly can't expect to win, given its recent legal record.

Meanwhile, Tagliabue will continue to blow steam out of his ears and claim that Jones is trying to ruin the league, which isn't true. And Jones, relishing the fight, will love every minute of every day.

The Cowboys' rogue owner has done what William Donald Schaefer never could.

He has gotten Tagliabue's attention.

Go ahead and giggle.

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