Passan: Tagliabue No Friend to Cleveland

Rich refuses to join the parade of Tagliabue's worshippers as the NFL Commish departs.

So Paul Tagliabue has decided to step down as the high and mighty commissioner of the National Football League.

Good riddance.

What he has done for Cleveland and professional football in Cleveland can be placed in a thimble. With plenty of room left.

Plainly and simply, he jobbed Cleveland.

Tagliabue, who will leave office at the end of July in triumphant fashion, did Cleveland no favors in 1995 when Art Modell "had no choice" but to leave Cleveland for greener ($$$$) pastures in Baltimore.

Sycophants, however, point to the tremendous growth of the NFL on Tagliabue's 17-year watch, during which:

  • The league expanded by four teams.
  • Television revenue reached mammoth proportions.
  • Nineteen new stadiums went up. After all, the NFL is more into building new venues than producing good football.
  • Labor peace has been maintained.
  • Revenue sharing and the salary cap were born.
  • He helped make all the owners (except Modell) wealthy beyond their wildest dreams.

To be fair, there is no question the NFL has become America's favorite sport with Tagliabue at the helm. But let's not get carried away with the praise being heaped on him.

What Tagliabue did best when he succeeded Pete Rozelle was simple. And smart.

He didn't screw up what the much more imaginative and creative Rozelle accomplished as his predecessor. Rozelle took over the struggling NFL back in the 1960s and built and nurtured it to where it has become America's pastime.

Back then, the NFL was a 12-team league that played with a few regional TV networks and not much else. Its national exposure paled compared to baseball. Television catered more to the more popular baseball.

Tagliabue, a league attorney before becoming commissioner, was vanilla compared to the more effusive and polished Rozelle, who had been the public relations director for the Los Angeles Rams and knew how to handle the media. He also knew how to market the product.

The more reserved and stately Tagliabue simply sat back, made certain everyone was happy, shook a lot of hands and avoided mistakes.

He knew who his enemies were and kept them in plain sight. Among them was Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Association. He made certain that Upshaw and his players were comfortable and that the owners knew the players were like partners.

He says now as he nears retirement that his only regret is that Los Angeles does not have an NFL franchise. Never mind the fact that the city had trouble supporting the Rams and Raiders and lost both. It doesn't deserve a team.

Tagliabue seems to care more about that than losing the strong Cleveland franchise in 1995, a franchise that had been a bedrock in the NFL for 50 years. That didn't seem to stir him nearly as much.

He could not care less about you, Browns fans. If he did, that three-year gap in the 1990s would never have occurred.

He could have stopped Modell in 1995. He had the power to do so. And didn't.

Modell had run the franchise into financial hell and was rewarded for his efforts. Just five years later, Tagliabue slammed the brakes on Seattle owner Kenneth Behring's attempt to move the Seahawks to Southern California. Behring subsequently sold the club to Paul Allen.

Modell's plans to evacuate Cleveland angered a lot of owners. Many were prepared to vote against him before Tagliabue brokered a deal with the City of Cleveland to get an expansion franchise in 1999. Had the commissioner put his foot down, he would have had the backing of a lot of owners.

That wasn't the first time Tagliabue unwisely sided with Modell. He made his initial mistake in 1993, backing the Browns owner's plan to extend the existing TV contract and give back millions to the networks because of sagging ratings.

Dallas owner Jerry Jones and Denver owner Pat Bowlen stepped forward and basically said, "No way." They knew a gold mine when they saw one. The NFL and TV made the perfect monetary couple and they knew it.

Jones and Bowlen negotiated an even stronger deal by bringing the fledgling Fox Network on board. Today, each NFL team receives more than $90 million a year from television.

So no, Tagliabue's departure should not evoke sadness. If anything, Cleveland fans should be thrilled he's leaving. He did you no favors along the way.

So as far as this Cleveland supporter is concerned, Tags, don't let the door hit you in the hind flanks.

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