Leonard Shapiro, Sports Columnist
Leonard Shapiro's Sideline View

Tagliabue Deserves a Quick Trip to Canton

By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 23, 2006; 5:15 PM

Memo to my fellow members on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee:

If we fail to vote NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue into the Hall next February, we should be even more embarrassed than ever before, including the incomprehensible failure once again to get former Washington Redskins receiver Art Monk in the front door in Canton and the mean-spirited snub also accorded to Art Modell, one of the great behind-the-scenes league architects in the Pete Rozelle-era and beyond.

Difficult to believe, but Tagliabue, who announced that he will resign in July after 17 years as commissioner, never has even been among the 15 finalists discussed at length and then voted on for enshrinement every year on the Saturday morning before the Super Bowl. He's made it to the final 25 the past two years, but never the final cut to 15.

It doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure out why.

Unlike his predecessor, Rozelle, a team public relations man in his early days in the league, Tagliabue has always been exactly what he was hired to be -- all lawyer, all the time. The man who defended the league in countless lawsuits by Al Davis back in the 1970s and '80s was hardly the hand-shaking, back-slapping, public-speaking wizard in the Rozelle image.

He was a former Georgetown basketball player who did all the dirty rebounding work, a driven, brilliant man who spent most of his early professional career in the world of torts and briefs. He was a law library and get-me-in-front-of-a-jury kind of guy who early on also mastered the art of logical, fact-based thinking working for a powerful Washington law firm.

Public speaking wasn't his strength, but as a strategic planner and consensus builder he was widely respected and perhaps even intellectually feared by some of the owners he worked for. He had no peer among the league's owners.

His news conferences, whether at league meetings or the annual state-of-the-league address at the Super Bowls, were hardly made-for-television sound bite stuff. At times, with cameras rolling and pens poised, he came off as stiff and humorless. He occasionally lost patience with questioners who tried to probe a little too deeply for more facts than he was willing to provide, or inquisitors who simply asked dumb questions.

There were times, I must admit, I walked out of some of those sessions shaking my head and agreeing with colleagues who wondered why the commish couldn't have been more forthcoming, thrown us a bigger news story bone or at least exhibited a warmer, fuzzier face and tone.

I've also been around him in more private settings, occasionally even one-on-one, when he could be charming, humorous and far more informative. I also have heard about another side, the kind and compassionate commissioner who did some of his best work at a time when the nation was still reeling from the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Tagliabue was the first national sports leader to understand that playing games the weekend after the attacks was absolutely the wrong thing to do. While most of his commissioner colleagues in other sports were still contemplating their options and/or navels, Tagliabue set the pace, stepped up first and did exactly the right thing in calling off the games while the nation tried to come to grips with the specter of terrorism and mourned for the thousands so needlessly killed.

Just as significantly, friends in the NFL's Park Avenue office later also told me about all the right moves he also made behind the scenes. Several league employees lost loved ones in the World Trade Center attacks, and I was told that for weeks and months, Tagliabue spent as much time trying to help his employees deal with their grief and shattered lives as he did on anything having to do with the big business of pro football. This was not really meant for public consumption, they just wanted me to know what he'd done.

Tagliabiue also showed great leadership on another significant front. He had always been a firm believer in improving diversity on the coaching sidelines and executive suites of teams around the league.

When two Washington-based attorneys made public their scathing report on the dearth of minority head coaches four years ago, Tagliabue used the occasion to form a diversity committee chaired by widely respected Pittsburgh owner Dan Rooney. He and Rooney eventually convinced owners to adapt a rule -- the Rooney Rule -- pledging that for every coaching vacancy, at least one minority candidate had to be interviewed.

There will be six African-American head coaches on the sidelines next season, and likely many more to come in future years, long after Tagliabue has gone off to a well-deserved retirement split between homes in Maine and Washington.

In all the stories about his retirement this week, the emphasis on his tenure has mostly been about all the television money he helped his owners make, the labor peace over his entire reign, the building of so many modern stadiums, the formation of the league's own cable channel, the groundbreaking drug program he pushed through, the expansion to 32 teams and on and on.

All of those accomplishments ought to be enough to assure his selection to the Hall of Fame as arguably the finest sports commissioner of his and, arguably, any other era. But his basic decency, so obvious in the weeks after 9/11, and his commitment to diversity throughout the league make him a slam-dunk Hall of Famer in my mind. Not to do make that happen next January would be a travesty of the highest order, and an embarrassment beyond belief.

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