Labor, Drug Issues Still Plague Tagliabue


A year ago, when the NFL's club owners met to select a commissioner to succeed Pete Rozelle, Paul Tagliabue suffered the worst defeat of his life.

Although most owners had known him for his 20 years as the league's lawyer, no one voted for Tagliabue.

Not until last October, when the campaign for New Orleans General Manager Jim Finks collapsed, was Tagliabue elected--and even then, not unanimously.

Now, as the NFL begins another year of exhibitions, international appearances, regular-season games and playoffs--in his first full season as commissioner--has he recovered from the humiliation of learning that he was everyone's second choice?

Those who know him at work in New York and at home in Washington swear that Tagliabue has nothing to recover from, because he never felt humiliated.

A year ago, he hadn't even seemed interested in becoming commissioner. In the midst of the league's long selection process last summer, while angry owners were shouting at one another during a series of fruitless meetings, Tagliabue and his wife took off for Europe on a six-week vacation.

But he came back wanting the job, and, three months later, swept smoothly into Rozelle's office on Park Avenue. And as the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks prepare for Saturday's exhibition game in Tokyo, the first of four international exhibitions this month, it is clear that Tagliabue is pro football's man in charge.

He hasn't solved two problems--the labor and drug issues remain--but in all other areas, Tagliabue, 49, has shown the steadiness and self-assurance of a veteran commissioner with a grasp of the NFL's complex issues.

As John Shaw, Ram vice president, said: "Paul has far exceeded the expectations we had for him at this point in his career."

Able executives don't always start fast. More often than not, they look around and listen awhile before leaping. Thus, Tagliabue, a tall, spare, 49-year-old former basketball player, has more to show for his first 10 months in New York than most other commissioners.

He wasn't responsible for all the gains, true. But he was the NFL's leader when the league:

--Signed a record $3.6-billion TV contract.

--Agreed to limit instant-replay reviews to a maximum of two minutes.

--Agreed to shorten halftimes and make other changes designed to shorten most games to three hours.

--Planned to add two franchises in 1993, when the NFL could have three 10-team conferences, with five teams in each of six divisions.

--Began a series of meetings bringing together, for the first time, game officials and coaches.

--Initiated advisory meetings with former players.

--Widened the NFL's war on recreational drug use after the resignation of Dr. Forest Tennant, who was replaced by two doctors and a counselor.

--Attacked the steroid problem with a new, random-testing program that will bar players testing positive for the muscle-building drug for at least four games. On appeal, players testing positive may observe retests.

--Extended the regular season from 16 to 17 weeks this year with a series of byes, giving the teams of each division the same day off.

--Broadened the playoff season. The playoffs will start next January with a two-day, eight-team, four-game first round involving six wild-card teams and two division champions. That will replace the one-day wild-card first round, during which only two games were played.

"The addition of two wild cards this year gives us a chance for a much more exciting (first round)," Tagliabue said. "And it will be fairer to the good teams that happen to be in the same division with even better teams. In recent years, Denver, Washington and others have just missed with 10-6 records that were better than the records of some (teams) in the playoffs."

On Tagliabue's first-year report card, among the "A" grades, are an "F" in labor and an incomplete in drugs.

In those areas, Tagliabue isn't wholly or even mainly responsible. But much as coaches, quarterbacks and commissioners are credited for all victories, they are blamed for any defeats.

"Labor (peace) is my No. 1 priority," Tagliabue said the other day. "Whatever is second is a distant second."

He has said much the same for 10 months, and he has worked hard on it. Still, there is no peace, no end to the fuss that has kept the NFL's players and owners without a collective bargaining agreement for three years.

The impasse suggests that the league's constitution and bylaws render a commissioner almost powerless when opposed by blocs of resolute owners or players. The two-edged problem:

--A majority of NFL players have declared for limited free agency. Their stand isn't negotiable, they insist, noting that NFL careers average only four years. Their view is that it is reasonable to seek free agency--not for all players--but for all who, beating the averages, last at least four years.

--The NFL's most conservative eight or 10 owners, led by Hugh Culverhouse of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, have reportedly vowed never to give in on free agency. And because the NFL is a league in which the minority can rule, the votes of eight of the 28 owners can block progress in any field.

Result: No results.

Tagliabue seems more sure-footed when it comes to battling drugs, although it's doubtful that any executive today deserves more than an incomplete grade.

Tagliabue inherited a controversial drug adviser, Tennant, whose program had been criticized both by the NFL Players Assn. and by various media elements.

As Tennant completed his fourth year on the job last February, he sent in his resignation only four months after Tagliabue's election. It was instantly accepted. Tagliabue's reasoning:

--Although hired as an adviser, Tennant wanted to be the NFL's drug spokesman, too, and his shooting from the hip in public appearances got him in trouble.

--Differing with the NFLPA and some reporters, the NFL found that Tennant was satisfactorily handling his duties.

"The charges against him (by players and media) were unfair," Tagliabue said. "He did a fine job, and had a good program. The problem was his unnecessary (visibility)."

The NFL calls Tennant a competent scientist who, unlike some scientists, enjoys performing on television, where he isn't competent. The TV camera makes him look immature, evasive and uncertain.

Moreover, Tennant harmed both himself and the league several times, the NFL alleges, with his offhand televised remarks on the inadequacy of drug counseling.

When asked about that, Tennant said he is convinced--along with others in his field--that counseling is ineffective for addicts who, because of cocaine use, have suffered the loss of pain-relieving endorphins in their brains.

But even after hearing Tennant's explanation, Tagliabue, at his Super Bowl news conference last winter, said he was "mystified" by his drug adviser's attitude toward counseling.

That day, an NFL source said: "My hunch is that Tennant is right about drug counseling. But advisers who mystify the boss are usually out of there."

At 9:15 p.m. on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend two months ago, the telephone rang in the New York residence of Joe Browne, the NFL's vice president for communications and development.

Tagliabue was calling from the Washington beltway on the new telephone in his car.

The commissioner was on his way home to Bethesda, Md., from his old law office in Washington, where, as usual, he had spent Sunday thinking about and working on NFL problems.

"I'd been trying to reach him at home that evening," Browne said. "I should have known better than to call him there."

To Tagliabue, fun time is work time, so the new phone gives him the best of two worlds. Since taking office last fall, he has found that the only real change in his lifestyle is a longer workday on Washington weekends as he drives along, telephoning Browne and other business associates.

Tagliabue's distinguishing characteristics are still a capacity for work and a compulsion to be well informed.

In 20 years as an NFL lawyer, he was seldom surprised by any opponent, judge or jury. And as a commissioner, he has already become the NFL's authority on nearly everything.

That makes him more admired than loved. It isn't easy to love a boss who works 12 hours a day, Sundays included. Even so, Tagliabue holds the respect of the league for his role in setting a fast new pace at the NFL office.

There, for example, the work week now begins at 8:30 a.m. Monday with a meeting of Tagliabue and the league's senior department heads.

Those executives, who are now obliged to spend the weekend thinking instead of playing, were all hired during the Rozelle era. There have been no shake-ups so far, and only a few staff changes.

Tennant has been replaced by Minneapolis drug counselor Peter Bell and two doctors, Lawrence S. Brown of New York and John Lombardo of Ohio. Browne has been promoted to head planner--for expansion, realignment and the like--in addition to head publicist. Greg Aiello, formerly of the Dallas Cowboys, has succeeded Browne as director of communications, with Jim Heffernan remaining as director of public relations.

Meantime, Tagliabue has settled in as a man of two cities. Throughout the off-season, he has commonly taken the 6 p.m. train to Washington Fridays and the 6 p.m. train back Sundays.

This year, Tagliabue's wife, Chandler, whom he calls Chan, has spent most of her time in Washington, where their daughter, Emily, finished high school.

This fall, Emily will be at Yale, son Drew at Amherst and Chan in New York.

"I'm looking forward to Sundays with Paul at football games," she said. "Most of our traveling now is job-related."

They even saw a soccer game this summer, the World Cup final, when Tagliabue was overseas on international football business. Their game-day companion was Henry Kissinger, the former secretary of state who was serving as a Times soccer critic.

("World-class soccer) players are great athletes, and it was an extraordinary spectacle," Tagliabue said. "But the game itself was like a 3-0 Super Bowl."

In New York, the Tagliabues have taken a temporary apartment a block from his Manhattan office. He can see it across the way.

"The (one-bedroom) apartment is a bit small, but centrally located," said Chan Tagliabue, who hopes to resume a part-time career as a social activist.

She has worked in other years for Planned Parenthood and as a fund-raiser for the family's Episcopal church. But as the wife of a busy commissioner, she hasn't set any 1990s priorities.

Her husband has. Having dealt with most NFL problems, his priority now is to eliminate the labor unrest and drug turmoil. Either might be enough to make even a workaholic cringe.

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