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Tagliabue Retiring After 16 Years as NFL Commissioner

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. The long time commissioner of the National Football League is retiring. Today Paul Tagliabue announced that he'll leave his job in July. He's 65 years old, and he's been running the NFL since 1989, helping to make it the most economically successful pro sports league in the country. More now from NPR's Tom Goldman.

TOM GOLDMAN, reporting:

Think for a moment about the images of pro football: violent collisions, bellowing fans, breathtaking athleticism. Now think about the man at the center of all this for the past 17 years, and the irony is inescapable. Paul Tagliabue is at least publicly, quiet, lawyerly careful. And he was his low-key best today saying in a statement, I believe that now is a positive time to make the transition to a new commissioner. Professor Kenneth Shropshire is a sports business expert from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. He puts Tagliabue's announcement in the context of two great NFL running backs.

KENNETH SHROPSHIRE (Professor, University of Pennsylvania): It's kind of reminiscent of Jim Brown or Barry Sanders, kind of athlete that retires out on top.

GOLDMAN: Just 12 days Tagiliabue helped broker a new collective bargaining agreement between owners and players that will last for six years. Before that, stretching back nearly two decades, he is credited with helping the league's economy explode. The NFL's national TV contract, shared equally among the teams, has grown exponentially. Franchise values have soared. According to the Associated Press, more than two-thirds of the NFL's 32 teams are either playing in or are building stadiums that didn't exist when Tagliabue became commissioner. Perhaps none of this would have been possible, or wouldn't have succeeded to such an extent, without Tagliabue's greatest accomplishment, forging almost 20 years of labor peace between the players and owners.

LEE STEINBERG (Sports Agent): This is a playing field. People buy an enormous amount of self-confidence. Some would say a huge amount of type A ego.

GOLDMAN: Veteran sports agent Lee Steinberg.

Mr. STEINBERG: And it takes a lower profile personality, extremely intelligent, extremely calculating, to be able to walk through that mine field and navigate the same sort of peace.

GOLDMAN: By all accounts Tagliabue used those navigating skills to perfection with this month's contract negotiations. For the first time in many years some owners for publicly threatening to rebel and reject a new collective bargaining agreement because of the way they were being asked to share revenues. But Tagiliabue successfully reminded owners of the cooperative spirit in the league established decades ago by Tagliabue's predecessor, Peter Rozelle. The question now becomes who carries on that legacy? The question even came up today at the U.S. State Department, where a journalist reminded spokesman Shawn McCormick that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said in the past that she'd love to be NFL commissioner.

Unidentified Female: It looks like the secretary's dream job has finally opened up.

SHAWN MCCORMICK (Spokesman): I noticed that right before I came out here.

Unidentified Female: Are you worried that you might lose the Secretary of State to the NFL?

Mr. MCCORMICK: Well, at this point, the secretary is enjoying being Secretary of State.

GOLDMAN: It will take someone with great diplomatic skills to pick up where Paul Tagiliabue is leaving off in order to maintain the momentum he's built and to keep peace in NFL boardrooms where the competition can be as fierce as it is on the field, minus shoulder pads and helmets. Tom Goldman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.