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HOF hindsight: A Goodell time later, I’d vote for Tags

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The Sports Xchange

The Pro Football Hall of Fame will induct its first special class of two “contributors” this week, and neither of them will be Paul Tagliabue, the former commissioner.

That is unfortunate, and some of the blame for that falls right here.

Only now, nearly a decade since he stepped down, can we really appreciate the job that Tagliabue did in running the NFL, maintaining peace with the players, and avoiding some of the stupid, my-word-is-law actions and knee-jerk reactions that have plagued his successor, Roger Goodell.

When Tagliabue was a viable Hall of Fame candidate at the end of his commisionership and in the years immediately following, two things stood out: The NFL’s miserable failure to improve the stadium situation in California, and an expansion plan that left teams in cities like Jacksonville, Nashville and Charlotte — nothing against the South — but not in Los Angeles.

As a California voter at the time, I was among those leading the charge to block the Hall’s doors to Tagliabue. The thinking went that the next guy in the big chair had to be better.

Well, the next guy has been a huge disappointment, and California still is a mess for the NFL, although there are rumblings it soon may be worked out.

And in the years since then, Tagliabue was among the people who had to step in and straighten out one of Goodell’s messes when Tags served as arbitrator in the New Orleans bounty case.

This is not an attempt to denigrate the Hall of Fame credentials of former general managers Ron Wolf and Bill Polian, who will be enshrined as the first two men under a special contributors category that was started this year. Previously, contributors had to compete against players for votes.

But the passage of time and the dimming of passions have enabled us to better see the significance of Tagliabue’s leadership — 17 years without labor strife, a cordial relationship with the late Gene Upshaw, the head of the players union, a smooth functioning minority fellowship program for coaches and a push to get more minorities into coaching and other key positions in the league.

Unfortunately for Tagliabue, there was one area where Goodell clearly out-did him, and that is quite likely why Tagliabue’s path to Canton has been so rocky: public relations.

It was not in Tagliabue’s DNA to schmooze with lowly members of the Fourth Estate. Never mind that the Hall of Fame selection committee is composed entirely of media members. If making nice with them was a requisite for Hall selection, Tags was never going to make it. Condescending was about the nicest term that could be applied to his media savvy.

Goodell, a one-time NFL public relations intern, was a natural at that role. Goodell’s mis-handling of these many disciplinary cases the last couple of years, from Ray Rice to Greg Hardy to Adrian Peterson to Bountygate to Tom Brady, allowing regular-season games to be played with unqualified, strike-breaking officials on the field, has eroded some of his goodwill among the media.

It is interesting to note that Tagliabue, an attorney by trade, seemed always to put the game first, ahead of dollar signs, even to the point of backing a failed plan to help the TV networks by holding down an increase in rights fees in the ‘90s. Meanwhile, Goodell, who grew up in the NFL and is not an attorney, seems to see dollar signs around every corner.

Yet if you took a poll of the media covering the league, Goodell would probably still beat Tagliabue by a 10-1 margin.

For the last several years, on the Friday before the Super Bowl and just before his annual commissioner’s state-of-the-NFL press conference, Goodell has stepped into the pro football writers annual meeting and answered questions for 15 minutes or so. No new ground was broken there and the cause of Western civilization has not been advanced, but the mere act of meeting the writers on their turf won Goodell an avalanche of goodwill.

Don’t know if Tagliabue ever were asked to do that, too, but it’s safe to assume he would not have done it under any circumstances. Nonetheless, I will say it right here: If they put Tagliabue on the Hall of Fame ballot, he has my vote.

–Ira Miller is an award-winning sportswriter who has covered the National Football League for more than four decades and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. He is a national columnist for The Sports Xchange.


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