- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 29, 2006

ORLANDO, Fla. — Retiring NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue has presided over a 16-year era of labor peace, unparalleled television rights fees and on-field parity. With the collective bargaining agreement with the players association and the TV deals set for the rest of the decade, the next commissioner’s biggest challenge could be not to tinker with the most successful colossus in sports history.

However, several of the new guard of owners have used 21st century terms like “digitized” and “strategize” in discussing how they believe the NFL needs to become a worldwide, not just an American, leviathan.

No one gave much thought to the global marketplace and the Internet when Tagliabue, then the NFL’s lead Washington attorney, was chosen in October 1989 to succeed Pete Rozelle. Even back then, the owners interviewed an outsider — New York Republican Party chairman/investment banker J. Patrick Barrett — and a minority candidate — Green Bay Hall of Fame defensive end/business executive Willie Davis — before narrowing the field to Tagliabue and New Orleans Saints general manager Jim Finks. Tagliabue prevailed after a seven-month battle.

This time around, the field apparently includes Atlanta Falcons GM Rich McKay, Baltimore Ravens president Dick Cass and five NFL executives: chief operating officer Roger Goodell; NFL Network chief Steve Bornstein; Management Council chairman Harold Henderson; chief counsel Jeff Pash and executive vice president for finance Eric Grubman. Among the outsiders who have been mentioned are DirectTV CEO Chase Carey and Disney executive Reggie Williams, the former Cincinnati linebacker, who, like Henderson, is black.

• Goodell, 47, starts the process as the favorite. Tagliabue’s right-hand man began his NFL career as an intern in 1982, and after a year with the New York Jets, Goodell began his rise up the league ladder before assuming his current role in 2001. Goodell’s close relationship with Tagliabue could backfire with some owners who don’t appreciate having a decision dictated to them, but others are grateful to the lame-duck commissioner for the unprecedented riches they have garnered on his watch. And unlike his competitors, Goodell has been involved with just about the full gamut of NFL issues.

• If Goodell is the Tagliabue of the contenders, then the 47-year-old McKay is this year’s Finks. McKay grew up in the sport as the son of John McKay, who coached the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after winning four national titles at Southern Cal. After earning his law degree, the younger McKay was the Bucs’ counsel, then their vice president of football administration before becoming GM in 1995. In 1997, the Bucs made the playoffs for the first time in 15 years. Tampa Bay won the Super Bowl in January 2003, but McKay left that December following a power struggle with coach Jon Gruden. The Falcons reached the NFC Championship game in McKay’s first season in Atlanta. McKay also has served as co-chairman of the NFL’s influential competition committee since 1998.

• Although Cass has worked in the league for only two years, the partner in the District law firm of Wilmer, Cutler and Pickering assisted Jerry Jones with the purchase of the Dallas Cowboys in 1989 and represented Jack Kent Cooke’s estate in the sale of the Washington Redskins in 1999. More important, the 60-year-old Cass played a critical role in brokering the internal revenue sharing deal that allowed the league to extend the CBA with the NFLPA earlier this month.

• Bornstein, 53, is the most likely of the less-touted candidates because of his experience as chairman of ESPN and president of ABC Television before joining the NFL in 2003. With his development of the ESPN brand and creation of the X-Games, Bornstein certainly is the type of forward-thinker the new guard owners prefer.

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