PHOENIX – Here's hoping those chairs in the NFL Hall of Fame waiting room are comfortable. Former league commissioner Paul Tagliabue could be there for a while.
Tagliabue once again whiffed on the Hall's first cut-down in balloting, getting chopped from consideration when the tiered balloting whittled from 15 to 10 here on Saturday. That the same thing happened last year – Tagliabue's first year of eligibility – was eye-opening. That it happened again this year was downright telling.
Here's the reality, as blunt as it can be laid out: As a collection, the current sports writers voting for the Hall of Fame aren't in any hurry to punch Tagliabue's ticket. And the primary reason this year was a looming opt-out clause in the NFL's collective bargaining agreement. Simply put, if the NFL owners blow-up the current labor peace that Tagliabue constructed, a cornerstone of his Hall of Fame resumé will have lost some luster.
Voters who were in the room for the debate over candidates were urged to keep the deliberations under wraps. However, a six-man pool of voters who spoke to Yahoo! Sports said the focus on Tagliabue lasted an eyelash under 44 minutes, and was far less heated than last year's deliberations. His candidacy once again was presented by Sports Illustrated's Peter King, then the floor was opened to comments. According to several voters, it became clear very early in the process that Tagliabue wasn't going to have enough support from the 40 voters in attendance (in all, six new members were elected on Saturday).
Clearly, the short tenure of current commissioner Roger Goodell has planted a seed in the minds of some voters. Several said that it has become clear to them that Goodell is taking steps to clean up a mess left behind by the former commissioner – steps they believe should have been taken before Tagliabue stepped down. And those steps are being taken to improve the integrity of the game, not just the financial standing of the league.
But Tagliabue's problems run deeper than what Goodell has done in his two seasons. In reality, Tagliabue's candidacy is being dragged down by a number of issues. Some voters view him as a corporate commissioner who went to great lengths to line the pockets of the league's owners but who didn't truly improve the game itself during his 17-year reign (1989-2006).
Others argue Tagliabue was more of a reactionary leader, seizing on the downfall of other major sports leagues around him. That doesn't sit well with some voters who saw Pete Rozelle as more of an innovator, who grew the league at a time when other major sports such as baseball and basketball saw flourishing periods.
Still others offer what has been a far smaller issue – the fact that a spare few voters still hold a grudge against the commissioner for his wooden personality and overall disdain for the media.
But clearly the No. 1 concern is the shadow cast by the current labor situation. Tagliabue's candidacy is largely built on the unparalleled labor peace during his tenure. But unlike players, whose resumés are complete when they retire, many voters believe Tagliabue still must be judged based on any collective bargaining issues that arise in the next several years. After all, the current labor situation is one he worked to piece together. And if the owners opt out of it after less than two full seasons – which they can do next November – that will reflect on Tagliabue.
As it stands, if owners do opt out, the league would go to an uncapped year in 2010. And union head Gene Upshaw has said repeatedly that if the league ever gets to a season without a salary cap, the union will never allow the cap to be put back into place. Not that the owners are expected to let an uncapped season take place. Instead, they likely would lock players out after the 2009 season and start a chaotic and complicated round of litigation – which in the larger picture makes the Tagliabue-led labor extension in 2006 look more like a Band-Aid than a legitimate fix.
That will be the anvil on Tagliabue's shoulder for the next few seasons. And until it sorts itself out – perhaps in 2010 – the jury will be out on the former commissioner's claim to Hall of Fame induction.