Reform debated by NFL

Owners seeking greater involvement

January 19, 2000|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- NFL team owners yesterday launched a reform of the league designed to meet the business demands of the new century and render more accountable top executives whose hefty pay has raised accusations of back-room dealing.

Commissioner Paul Tagliabue was not invited to the nearly-two hour session of sometimes-contentious debate that was attended by one representative from each of the 32 franchises. Among the ideas raised: hiring an "executive director" for the league or a consultant who could suggest ways the team owners can be better involved in matters some feel are handled by a clique of influential franchise and league executives.

The session was one of a series of NFL meetings during which team owners ratified the sale of the New York Jets to Robert Wood "Woody" Johnson IV and received a status report on the pending sale of the Ravens.

No votes were taken during the portion on reform, and another meeting was planned, but the fact that the discussion was held was a vindication of sorts for renegade Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis. It was his filing of lawsuits against the league, alleging fraud, corruption and self-dealing, that fueled the reform movement.

"The evidence is overwhelming. No one has contradicted it," Davis said as he emerged. However, he acknowledged, "There are a lot of people in there who do not want to emasculate the commissioner."

In fact, other team owners expressed staunch support for Tagliabue, who has overseen a historic period of growth in franchise values and television revenues. But the finance committee last week did approve a change in procedure so that the salary and benefits of top league officials, including Tagliabue, will be reported each year to all the owners.

Davis has contended that the commissioner, recently resigned NFL president Neil Austrian and a handful of team owners secretly established a compensation fund that now totals nearly $100 million for the benefit of about 60 key league employees. The judge threw the case out of court, telling Davis it should be raised within the NFL first.

Davis did so last month at a special owners meeting, after which the franchises voted 28-0 that Davis' charges were meritless. Davis said he will continue with his case, and the issue of accountability loomed large here yesterday.

New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft said: "It was a very healthy exchange, and I think we learned from it and will grow from it. We are a $15 billion enterprise, and you can't run it like a mom and pop operation.

"We have to gear ourselves up to be sure we disseminate information and communicate properly," Kraft said.

The league also wants to position itself to take advantage of what is expected to be an Internet-driven revolution in the way people follow sports. Toward that end, Tagliabue suggested a restructuring of his office to speed up decision-making and take better advantage of opportunities as they arise.

"I think the biggest challenge we have as a league is to evolve our media, our television from the current broadcast television and cable television distribution system into the digital era," Tagliabue said.

The first order of business at yesterday's meetings, however, concerned the transfer of franchises. Despite long-standing worries that the rise in team values will make it impossible to preserve the league's prohibition on corporate ownership, two more rich men have emerged to buy teams in New York and Baltimore.

Johnson, 53, an heir to the founding family of Johnson & Johnson health-care products company, paid $635 million to the estate of late team owner Leon Hess. The transfer was approved 29-0.

Johnson, a low-profile philanthropist whose only other swing at a sports team was a brief look at the Tampa, Fla., NFL expansion franchise in the 1970s, wasted no time in publicly establishing two priorities, one long term and the other short.

He promised to bring stability to the franchise, which has been rocked over the past two weeks by Bill Parcells' abrupt resignation as coach and the subsequent resignation of his presumed heir, former Browns coach Bill Belichick.

Johnson said he has met several times with Parcells -- whom he termed "a very unusual man" -- and wants him to stay on as coach. The two men have agreed to determine Parcells' future with the franchise by the end of the week, Johnson said.

As for the long term, Johnson said he wants the team, which now is a junior tenant of Giants Stadium, to have its own facility by the time its lease expires in 2008. He said he hasn't spoken with the requisite political leaders yet and hasn't decided on a location.

Ravens owner Art Modell made a brief report to the owners on his sale of the team to Anne Arundel County businessman Stephen Bisciotti. The deal, struck last month, calls for Bisciotti to pay $600 million in two phases over the next four to six years, first becoming a minority partner and then owning the whole team.

Modell said he told the owners "everything is moving along" to complete the transaction and bring it back to the league as soon as next month. Bisciotti and Modell are still negotiating the final details.

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