Tampa, Fla. Since voters for the NFL Hall of Fame love throwing around numbers so much, maybe they should try these on for size:
During Paul Tagliabue’s time in charge, players’ salaries and TV revenues more than tripled, on average, and the cost of most franchises increased fivefold. Better yet, try putting a dollar figure on what the league gained by supplanting baseball as America’s pastime.
Well, neither can the 44 voters who will choose between four and seven inductees from the 17 finalists on the Hall of Fame ballot this weekend. Yet that likely won’t stop them from bypassing Tagliabue’s name for the third year in a row. The former commissioner is one of only two candidates who made his mark off the field — longtime Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson is the other — but I dare any writer to cobble together a history of the league in which Tagliabue’s accomplishments aren’t front and center.
Suffice it to say they can’t do that, either.
“In my opinion,” said longtime Washington Post sports writer Leonard Shapiro, “his name belongs in the first three or four sentences, behind only Pete Rozelle, George Halas and maybe one or two others.”
As it turns out, though the 68-year-old Tagliabue has plenty of work to occupy his time, history is very much on his mind. He just became chairman of the board of directors at his alma mater, Georgetown University, and continues to do some work for his old law firm. Though he declined an offer to make his own case for induction, Tagliabue wrote in a recent e-mail, “The pro football Hall of Famers are members of the most exclusive team in the sport. They have tremendous players at nearly every position and legendary coaches like Don Shula and Chuck Noll.
“I was fortunate to be at the induction ceremonies every summer as commissioner,” he said, “and that weekend always was a memorable great start to each season.”
The arguments against bringing Tagliabue back to Canton at least one more time are flimsy at best. He could be stiff and lawyerly during news conferences and public appearances, but gripes about Tagliabue not being “media-friendly” — an art which Rozelle, a former public relations man, mastered — are downright silly.
New York Giant great Lawrence Taylor wasn’t media-friendly, and no matter when he becomes eligible, New England coach Bill Belichick never will be. Deciding who gets in may not be a science, but it isn’t a popularity contest, either.
For all the times Tagliabue presided over the proceedings in Canton as commissioner, none probably matched his one and only stint as a presenter. Precious few figures in the game deserved their reputation as a champion of antiestablishment causes than Redskins running back John Riggins, but when his day for induction rolled around, he chose Tagliabue.
Asked why, Riggins replied, “Because Madonna wasn’t available.”
When reporters pressed him, Riggins revealed that for all the gripes he had about the NFL and how it was run, he still harbored plenty of respect for the commissioner’s office and the man who occupied it at the time.
“When you get married,” he said, “you want the pope to perform the Mass.”