By Leonard Shapiro
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, December 2, 2008 1:22 PM
They released the 25 semifinalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame earlier this week, and two names on that list offered some hope that several wrongs will be righted.
I'm talking about former Cleveland Browns/Baltimore Ravens owner Art Modell and recently retired NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, both of whom should have been slam dunks from the first day they were eligible instead of being swatted away by so many shot blockers among my fellow HOF selectors.
Over the next month, the selection committee will pare the list down to 15 finalists and then vote on the Class of 2009 the day before the Super Bowl.
Both men have been finalists in that meeting room before, and the back-and-forth, as you might expect, has been mostly contentious, to say the least. If they make it to the Final Fifteen again to be discussed at length at our next meeting, surely there will be more of the same before the Class of 2009 is finally chosen.
At some point during that session in Tampa on Jan. 31, someone in the room of 40-something media selectors will inevitably bring up our gold standard for admission. "Can you write the history of professional football without him?" is the question almost always asked on that final day of decision.
In my mind, both Modell and Tagliabue belong on the first page of that history, perhaps even in the first few paragraphs.
Not long ago, I submitted a note of support for Modell that was e-mailed by the Hall to my fellow selectors on behalf of Modell's candidacy, standard operating procedure in the process. In the interest of full disclosure, readers also should know that a few years ago, I agreed to help Modell write his autobiography, a project that has not been completed but one that convinced me even more of his worthiness for football's highest honor.
"A dozen years have passed since Art Modell moved his team from Cleveland, well past the statute of limitations on the emotions that swirled around the discussion the last time Art made the cut to the final fifteen," I wrote to my fellow selectors.
"In considering his magnificent body of work as one of the most influential and effective owners in the league for nearly half a century, it's truly a travesty that his bust is not on display in Canton by now, a great wrong we have a chance to right this year.
"You can look up his achievements in the biographical section of the Hall's recent mailing, but the short list includes being a central figure in the merger, being chairman of the committee that struck the first CBA with the NFLPA and chairing the league's broadcasting committee during a long period of unprecedented growth in rights fees. He was Pete Rozelle's right hand, go-to-guy on a wide variety of issues, made the merger work when he convinced Art Rooney to join him in the AFC and was a consistent league-first voice of reason at league meetings, along with people like Dan Rooney and the late Wellington Mara, both of whom have been strong supporters of Art's candidacy over the years.
"As for the move to Baltimore, there are two sides to every story, and our committee really didn't hear Modell's version of it last time he was discussed. I'd like the opportunity to share some of those details with you, including the fact that both Paul Tagliabue and one of his own U.S. senators from Ohio told him he had no choice but to leave after Cleveland city officials reneged on a number of promises.
"To his credit, and very much unlike the Irsay family (the owners of the Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts), Modell magnanimously left behind the name Browns, as well as the team colors and its records, for the new Cleveland franchise. And it also should be said that the fans of Cleveland and Baltimore clearly benefited from a move that left both cities with magnificent new stadiums, and Baltimore with a team to call its very own once again.
"Ask yourself another question. If we're penalizing him for moving his franchise, how is [it] that Al Davis, Lamar Hunt and Dan Reeves all managed to be voted into the Hall, despite shifting their teams to different cities as well?"
As an addendum, I now would add George Preston Marshall and Charles Bidwill to that list of owners already in the Hall who also moved their teams. And I'd also be remiss for not giving Modell credit for another first: promoting Hall of Fame tight end Ozzie Newsome as the league's first African-American general manager.
As for Tagliabue, the case for his inclusion also seems so obvious.
Over his 17-year tenure between 1989 and his retirement in 2007, Tagliabue led the league to an unparalleled period of growth and prosperity, from exponential leaps in television revenue, expansion to 32 teams, widespread new stadium construction, the creation of the NFL Network and not a single work stoppage in an era of unprecedented labor-management peace. There also was an explosion in player salaries and benefits as well as owners' financial equity in their own franchises, many now valued at over $1 billion, even in a tanking economy.
Over Tagliabue's tenure, virtually all of the markets that lost teams when their owners pulled up stakes (Baltimore, Cleveland, St. Louis, Houston and Oakland) and moved elsewhere got another franchise back. The obvious exception was Los Angeles, though not without Tagliabue and his successor, Roger Goodell, trying mightily to right that wrong.
Tagliabue was the league's driving force in the move to adopt the Rooney Rule that dramatically increased the numbers of minority head coaches and decision-making front office personnel all around the league. He also took the lead among professional sports executives in implementing a comprehensive drug-testing program that has served as a model for other leagues and sports associations.
So what's the problem with getting Paul Tagliabue to Canton?
Sad to say, unlike his smooth operating predecessor, Rozelle, a former PR man, Tagliabue was never a warm and fuzzy sort of fellow, particularly in his dealings with the media. He often was inaccessible, and when he did appear behind a podium at league meetings and Super Bowl news conferences, he was mostly the humorless buttoned-down attorney, stiff and ill at ease, sometimes evasive and even occasionally combative.
Tagliabue clearly did his very best work in back rooms and board rooms, where the sharp elbows he honed as a fine college basketball player at Georgetown and later as a brilliant courtroom litigator were far more effective. Warm and fuzzy never could have cut it with all those billionaire sharks in the owner ranks, and Tagliabue clearly was far more a relentless master of that universe than he was in his dealings with the media crowd.
Should that keep arguably the most accomplished sports commissioner in history from his rightful place in Canton? Should Modell's controversial (and completely justified, some would say) move from Cleveland to Baltimore keep him out, as well, after a lifetime of achievement in helping make the NFL the most popular game in America?
Of course not. Both men deserve to be in the Hall of Fame, and their inclusion in the Class of 2009 would be the perfect place to start.
Leonard Shapiro can be reached at Len.Shapiro@washingtonpost.com.