Owners may push for fresh look at future

Modell among group seeking outside consultants, says discontentment exists

May 23, 2000|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

The question of how the National Football League should be run in the 21st century won't formally be on the agenda today when the owners gather in Baltimore for their annual two-day May meeting.

But the debate about whether there should be a change in the status quo under commissioner Paul Tagliabue will likely overshadow the discussion of a wide range of issues, including player conduct, the future of the Internet and the transfer of the ownership of the San Francisco 49ers.

Art Modell, the Ravens' owner, said he plans to bring up a proposal originally made by Buffalo owner Ralph Wilson that the owners hire an outside consulting firm to interview the executives on all 32 teams and make recommendations on the best way to operate the league in the future."It's time for a review to have a fresh look in some form at what we're doing and bring it into a contemporary mode," Modell said.

Modell noted that former commissioner Pete Rozelle hired a consulting firm to survey the league and make recommendations when the NFL merged with the American Football League in 1970.

Modell said he wasn't casting the proposal as a criticism of Tagliabue."I don't want to strip the commissioner of any power, and I'm not trying to dilute his importance," Modell said. "I want to support him."

But Modell conceded that there has been some discontent among the owners, because Tagliabue and a few close allies who serve on the committees he appoints tend to set the policies that are rubber-stamped by the membership.

Modell said: "There have been some complaints because people feel they don't know what's going on."

Wilson agreed."There should be more communication. I don't know what's going on. I'm trying to help the league. I'm not trying to do anything that is self-serving. The idea is to get things going in the right direction. The league needs more input from the individual clubs. Every big company in the world uses outside firms," Wilson said.

Complicating the situation is that the owner doing the most to push for change is Al Davis of the Raiders, and there's always a faction of owners that will oppose Davis because of his maverick reputation."I was in that faction, but Davis has brought up a lot of things nobody knew about. Just because it's Al, we shouldn't throw it out the window," Wilson said.

In one of his current legal fights with the league, Davis has charged he has uncovered financial irregularities, notably with an incentive compensation plan for Tagliabue and other top executives that some owners insist they didn't know existed.

At the last owners' meeting in March, Tagliabue was irate at the suggestion that some things weren't above board, telling the owners, "Pay me $1 a year, but don't question my integrity."

It's uncertain if all the debate will lead to any action."I can't speak for anybody but myself. I don't have the cult following I used to enjoy," Modell said jokingly.

One problem for the league is that many of the newer owners don't appear to put the interest of the league first the way the owners did in the past, when they first agreed to share television revenue. Modell noted the owners agreed in March to share Internet revenue for only two years."I can't bring back the past. I've tried, but a lot of newer owners don't have appreciation for what we're trying to do. The league is only as strong as its weakest link. There are a lot of personal agendas in the league, and they don't work together." Modell said.

William Clay Ford Jr., son of Lions owner William Clay Ford Sr., echoed those sentiments at a meeting last year, when he complained the owners were always "whispering in the corners."

Ford said: "I've never been a part of anything like it. The CIA has nothing on this place."

With so many conflicting opinions, there doesn't seem to be a consensus in the league on a course of action. The owners first discussed Tagliabue's methods at a meeting in New York in January without him in the room.

The only major change in the league since then is that Tagliabue is apparently going to operate without a No. 2 man. League president Neil Austrian recently departed and wasn't replaced, although executive vice president Roger Goodell was promoted to a post with more responsibility.

Tagliabue seems to prefer having an owners' committee survey the league executives rather than hire an outside consulting firm. At the very least, Modell said that committee members should be elected by secret ballot of the owners rather than have Tagliabue appoint them.

The one crisis the league currently faces is its image - two players, Ray Lewis of the Ravens and Rae Carruth, formerly of the Panthers, are facing murder charges.

The owners had a seminar on off-the-field conduct in March, and Harold Henderson, the executive vice president of labor relations, will lead a discussion on the topic at this meeting. Henderson said the league is likely to make only minor modifications in its current programs for counseling the players.

While the owners are meeting at an Inner Harbor hotel today, the head coaches and coordinators will be at Hunt Valley for an officiating seminar. Among the things on the agenda will be to explain to the coaches that under the new "interpretation," the Bert Emmanuel non-catch in the Tampa Bay-St. Louis playoff game is now a legal catch

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