Former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue is one of two contributor candidates for the Hall of Fame‘s Class of 2017, and there are two guarantees: 1) The debate will be as long as it will be contentious, and 2) the vote will be close.
Reason: Tagliabue is a polarizing candidate, with detractors concerned with his stance on concussions and how he characterized them in a 1994 panel discussion in New York. And how he characterized them then was as “one of those pack-journalism issues,“ saying that the number (of concussions) “is relatively small; the problem is the journalist issue.“
As we know now, it is not. It is more, much more, than that.
In fact, the Boston University Medical Center examined the brains of 96 deceased football players and discovered that 94 of them infected with CTE – evidence that had Tagliabue apologize for his remarks in an exclusive interview with the Talk of Fame Network that aired Wednesday evening.
“Obviously," he said, “I do regret those remarks. Looking back, it was not sensible language to use to express my thoughts at the time. My language was intemperate, and it led to serious misunderstanding. I overreacted on issues which we were already working on. But that doesn’t excuse the overreaction and intemperate language.
“Bottom line: It sounded like I was shooting the messenger, which was the concussion issue. My intention at the time was to make a point which could have been made fairly simply: That there was a need for better data. There was a need for more reliable information about concussions and uniformity in terms of how they were being defined in terms of severity.
“Reporting from the clubs was inadequate at that time. The bottom line was we needed to improve the system we had. You couldn’t draw firm conclusions based on what we had. Like I say, I overreacted and made it appear like I was shooting the messenger, which was a mistake.
“A few days before that panel, we had reviewed information about concussions and that was one of the things that led me to offer the opinion that there was not an increase. We looked at data from the five seasons before ‘94, and it was relatively flat in terms of concussions. And data from ‘94 was consistent with the prior five seasons. But I think the consistency there was more about the inadequacy of our reporting system than what was going on on the playing field."
In a far-ranging interview, Tagliabue addressed a number of other issues that concern voters, including:
- Over the last 12 years of his tenure as commissioner, there was no team in the country‘s second largest market, Los Angeles.
“California was a big disappointment for me," Tagliabue said, adding that the league worked “very hard" to keep the Raiders in L.A. (as well as make it possible for another NFC club to join them) with a 1995 deal for Hollywood Park, now the future home of the Rams and Chargers.
“It was approved by the league‘s finance committee," he said, “and then on the day the deal was supposed to be announced, Al Davis called me and said he had second thoughts. He wasn’t going to go forward with the deal; he was going back to Oakland. That was a huge disappointment for everybody, and, after that, we didn’t get anything done in Los Angeles."
- On the San Diego and San Francisco fronts, baseball built new stadiums there during Tagliabue‘s term but football did not.
“The biggest issue in San Diego and San Francisco," he said, “is the difference between what a football stadium costs and the kind of space it needs and a baseball stadium. Football stadiums were then … and still are … much bigger. The footprint that’s required for the stadium and the parking and the ancillary mass transit for a football stadium is a lot more expensive than for a baseball stadium.
“Ultimately, we addressed the stadium issues at the league level
By putting (a) cost-sharing formula in place in 1999, which led to the new stadiums in New England, Philadelphia, Denver, Detroit and other places. We tried to make it work in San Francisco and San Diego, but we never could.
“Some of the issues had to do with the costs that were unique to California, including earthquake-proofing of stadiums, which was an issue in the Bay Area, in particular. Other advantages that baseball had was that you could put them into entertainment districts, which they did in San Diego, and you have financing arrangements that you don’t have when the team is outside of an entertainment district.
“There were lots of factors and a lot of work, but the bottom line is we didn’t get it done in California what we were able to get done in virtually the entire rest of the country."
- The 1994 appointment of Dr. Elliot Pellman, a rheumatologist who became Tagliabue‘s personal physician, to head a mild traumatic brain injury committee.
“Dr. Pellman came to my attention after Al Toon retired," said Tagliabue, “and after Dennis Byrd was injured (1992). When Al Toon retired, Dr. Pellman was part of the Jets' group of physicians who recommended that he retire because of repeat concussions, and they told him what he said publicly … which was that repeat concussions could have long-term negative effects, and you should retire.
“After those two episodes with the Jets, I got a call from Leon Hess, the owner of the Jets, who told me that their team physician was a person who I should get involved in these issues of head, neck and spine injuries. Hess said that he was a hard worker, he was highly intelligent, he was a good organizer and he could work effectively with coaches and players … and he was willing to stand up for the medical point of view and not be cowed.
So I put Dr. Pellman in charge, knowing what his specialties were.
“I‘ve been chairing the board of Georgetown University, and I‘ve been involved in governance in a lot of organizations. I think that the chairman of a committee needs to be able to work with people, needs to be able to recruit people. He needs to identify the special knowledge like tax law, divorce law, that’s being addressed but does not necessarily have to be a specialist in that particular area if he has other qualities and other skills that are supportive of what you‘re trying to accomplish.
“The fact that he became my personal physician later has not a single thing to do with any of the decisions about Dr. Pellman or anyone else. It was truly based on track record that these men had with their teams and what I thought they could help us accomplish with internal change."
Tagliabue has been a Hall-of-Fame finalist four times. In his first try in 2006, he reached the final five modern-era candidates but did not gain 80 percent of the vote. So he became a candidate again in 2008 and 2009, failing to reach the final 10 in his last attempt.
Now he is back as a contributor candidate (those who did not coach or play the game), with late support to enshrine him based on a record of labor peace, gains in minority hiring, expansion, new stadiums and TV contracts, introduction of a salary cap and gains in revenues and, ultimately, interest.
“I think my biggest accomplishment was coming in fresh,“ he said, “although I had been involved for 20 years as outside counsel. Coming in fresh with a fresh group of owners, I think that was important. Jerry Jones, Norman Braman, Pat Bowlen and others all were looking to an era of growth, an era of innovation, an era of change. And we made the transition from what was, in many ways, a lost decade to a very positive decade.
“That was helped, of course, by television technology evolving, but I think the key thing was getting the labor agreement done with the Players Association. As I look back at the big picture, a lot of specific things are part of that agenda. “
(Paul Tagliabue photos courtesy of the NFL)