Goodell must not fumble NFL handoff

Commentary

August 13, 2006|By DAVID STEELE

In a smooth transition of power, last week Paul Tagliabue handed the NFL scepter over to Roger Goodell, his top lieutenant for the latter of his 17 years as commissioner. Yes, you more often hear the phrase "smooth transition of power" in connection with inaugurations and other regime changes.

But no two words underscore Tagliabue's reign better than "smooth" and "power." No, that should not be taken as a compliment.

The new young commissioner is still something of a blank slate, even though he has spent a couple of decades learning the job at the feet of the master. Or masters, since he paid homage to both Tagliabue and his predecessor, Pete Rozelle, upon accepting the gig. He called them "the two greatest commissioners in the history of professional sports," which probably set David Stern's teeth on edge.

But truth be told, if Goodell, 47, had his choice of shoes to try to fill, what sane man would pick Stern's over Tagliabue's? Actual qualifications for commissioner-esque greatness aside, who spends every waking moment sparring with critics, putting out fires and defending his sports' honor against all enemies -- he was actually forced, by public outcry, to order his players how to dress in public, for goodness' sake?

And who is being carried out of office on a tidal wave of praise bordering on deification?

Never mind that the two leaders encounter almost the same problems with hardheaded owners, knuckleheaded players and cities that won't voluntarily go broke to keep a team in town. The general perception is that Stern is barely keeping the asylum doors shut, while Tags ran the model pro sports league, the one all should envy.

Of course that's not fair. It's just how it is. How Tagliabue managed to put that kind of a sheen on a flawed league and its flawed individuals, is the miracle Goodell either grasps firsthand, or is charged with learning immediately, before his own doors fly open.

It is to Tagliabue's credit that the league's image of near-perfection seems practically self-perpetuating. It definitely is the Teflon league. That, in so many words, was acclaimed recently by one of its own marquee players, the New York Giants' Tiki Barber.

Barber told CBSSportsline.com that if he were commissioner for a day, he wouldn't change anything: "The game on the field is competitive; the league is sensitive to social issues; we're not viewed as cheats, as some other sports are; and it basically exemplifies sportsmanship that some sports do not."

Yes, I thought that was pretty obnoxious, too. Not surprisingly so, because Tagliabue was unmatched in his arrogant condescension to naysayers over the years; Baltimore fans know all about that after the "build some more museums" crack after the city's expansion effort was blown off in the early 1990s. Looking down its nose at everyone appears to be the league's official position.

But is Tiki wrong?

Name the sport that you're convinced is tainted by steroids and performance-enhancing drugs. Baseball, not the NFL. Name the sport that seems full of criminals who are apt to scare away fans, advertisers and TV networks. The NBA, not the NFL.

Social issues? Name the league whose team tried to weasel its way out of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Not the NBA's Hornets or minor league baseball's Zephyrs, the NFL's Saints. Name the league that belatedly took minority hiring seriously only after Johnnie Cochran threatened to sue it. Nope, no fair peeking.

As for sportsmanship, that can be defined a lot of ways. Not quite sure, though, if "stadium blackmail" is one of them. Oddly, that tactic has repeatedly failed to work in L.A., where every sport has two teams but the NFL none.

Yet the NFL holds a card that trumps all over: labor peace. There hasn't even been a hint of a strike or lockout in 19 years now, not even last winter when everyone got bent over a new labor contract for a few weeks. Is that alone enough to get fans to turn a blind eye to the deeds they scorn in every other sport? Sorry, can't answer that.

But is it a key to the NFL's riches during the Tagliabue era? Can't rule it out.

And "riches" is precisely why Tagliabue will go down in history. The NFL was doing really well when he took over. When he left, it was making money like it had a printing press in the basement. If Goodell has one chief task, it's to find the last cracks and crevices in which a few more dollars haven't yet been extracted.

So, in a way, Tagliabue's legacy -- the one that Roger Goodell inherits and is charged to continue -- resembles that of another quite successful businessman: Hyman Roth, from The Godfather Part II.

Hyman Roth, remember, always made money for his partners.

david.steele@baltsun.com

Points after -- David Steele

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