- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Paul Tagliabue announced yesterday he will step down as commissioner of the NFL this summer, ending a 16-year tenure in which he helped make the league the most dominant and wealthiest in the country.

“This is not an easy decision, but as difficult as it is, it’s just the right time for the league,” Tagliabue said.

Tagliabue took over a 28-team league that in 1989 had endured two player strikes in seven seasons and was completing a broadcast rights contract with three television networks that paid an average of about $467 million a year.

He will leave his job with a 32-team league that is ensured of at least 22 consecutive years of labor peace and an eight-year, $24 billion rights deal with five networks, including pay-per-view outlet DirecTV.

He also was part of a building boom. Only three NFL stadiums were less than a decade old when Tagliabue took over. Fifteen, however, have been built in the past decade.

The league earlier this month reached accord on a six-year extension of its collective bargaining agreement with the players union and already holds long-term deals for broadcast rights.

So Tagliabue decided it was the right time to walk away.

Roger Goodell, the league’s chief operating officer, and Atlanta Falcons general manager Rich McKay, head of the league’s competition committee, are considered the top candidates to replace Tagliabue.

Baltimore Ravens president Dick Cass also has been suggested as a successor. Tagliabue said he would push for diversity in the process to find his replacement in keeping with the NFL’s minority hiring initiative.

The replacement must be approved by the 32 franchise owners.

“Paul has left the NFL in great stead,” Jacksonville Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver said. “He … clearly has been the most effective commissioner in sports.”

Tagliabue will stay on as a senior executive and a consultant through 2008 under the terms of the contract extension he signed in July.

“History will judge him to be among the finest commissioners any sport has ever had,” Arizona Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill said. “During his tenure, the National Football League has achieved unprecedented success and prosperity as well as uninterrupted labor peace, and Paul Tagliabue deserves the lion’s share of the credit.

“He’s also been faced with some tremendous challenges, such as after 9-11, and his leadership in every instance was extraordinary. In 1989, we all knew that whoever succeeded Pete Rozelle would have big shoes to fill. Obviously the same is true of the successor to Paul Tagliabue.”

Rozelle was commissioner during the age of dynasties like the Green Bay Packers, Miami Dolphins and Pittsburgh Steelers, but Tagliabue ruled during the era of parity. Eleven teams won Super Bowls during his 16 full seasons in charge, and only three teams won more than one championship.

The 65-year-old Tagliabue, who served as one the NFL’s lawyers during the years of labor unrest, never came near to matching the charisma of Rozelle.

However, the NFL, which clearly had become America’s favorite league during Rozelle’s nearly 30-year reign, no longer needed a salesman as much as a cool-headed negotiator.

And that’s what the owners, who narrowly chose Tagliabue over New Orleans Saints president Jim Finks, got in the former captain of the Georgetown basketball team.

Tagliabue wisely played the TV networks off each other, venturing into cable and signing a deal with broadcast upstart Fox that deposited unprecedented riches in the bank accounts of NFL owners and players.

He also established a close relationship with players association executive director Gene Upshaw, allowing the league to set up the free agency system in 1993 and the salary cap in 1994 and preventing the strikes or lockouts that during his tenure forced the cancellation of baseball’s World Series, an entire NHL season and the start of an NBA season.

“Turning around the relationship with the players association is the thing I’m most proud of,” said Tagliabue, who termed the failure to prevent the Rams and Raiders from leaving Los Angeles in 1995 as his biggest regret.

“Paul has been a tremendous asset to our league and the direction we have taken,” said New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson, chairman of the NFL’s finance committee. “We have experienced very positive growth in the area of revenue sharing and broadcast contracts, we have secured long-term labor peace and … through it all Paul has been a leader, a friend and a voice that many others within our league and other leagues have followed.”

PAUL TAGLIABUE

Highlights as NFL commissioner (1989-2006)

mNegotiated collective bargaining agreement with players association in 1992 that included free agency and a salary cap. CBA has been continually extended, with the latest extension running through 2011, guaranteeing more than two decades of labor peace.

mNegotiated tremendous increases in television contracts, with the most recent deal worth $24 billion over eight years.

• Instrumental in construction boom that has produced or planned new stadiums for more than two thirds of the 32 teams during his tenure.

mIn 16 full seasons in charge, presided over an unprecedented era of on-field parity in which only three teams have won multiple Super Bowls and 19 teams reached the title game.

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