Concussions, his battle with Parkinson's disease and the NFL's future: Former commissioner Paul Tagliabue opens up

·13 min read

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Paul Tagliabue is finally on the doorstep for enshrinement into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It took five cracks as a finalist to get in. And if not for a “blue-ribbon panel” that picked him last year as part of a special Centennial Class chosen on top of the usual slate pegged by the Hall’s 48-member selection committee, the former NFL Commissioner still might not have made the cut now as a contributor. If ever.

“I had reached the point where I said it’s not going to happen and there’s nothing you can do about it,” Tagliabue told USA TODAY Sports recently.

What took so long? Tagliabue knows. Concussions.

There are multiple marks of glory that stamped Tagliabue’s 17-year tenure. He was a driving force for extended labor peace, bolstered by his relationship with late NFL Players Association (NFLPA) chief Gene Upshaw, which coincided with monumental TV deals and booming financial growth. He played a pivotal role in ensuring that the Saints remain in New Orleans as the city rebuilt following Hurricane Katrina and then-owner Tom Benson flirted with the notion of moving the franchise to San Antonio. He brokered an agreement that kept the Browns name, trademarks and records in Cleveland for a revived franchise after Art Modell moved his team to Baltimore. He convinced NFL owners to pull a Super Bowl out of Arizona until the state recognized the holiday honoring Martin Luther King, Jr.

Yet the record was also stained by his handling of the concussion conundrum that years later remains the NFL’s biggest safety issue.

“There were some things that we did which probably should have been done much quicker,” said Tagliabue, who left the NFL in 2006, succeeded by Roger Goodell. “But in the longer run, what’s happened in the last 20 years suggests it might not have made that much difference. Put it another way: For the most part, I think we did the things at the time that could have made the most difference.”

It’s unsettling that such a declaration was as close as Tagliabue, 80, came to expressing remorse for his handling of concussions during an expansive interview at a waterfront restaurant near his beloved alma mater, Georgetown University.

Former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue delivers his State of the NFL remarks ahead of Super Bowl XL in Detroit, in this Friday, Feb. 3, 2006, file photo. Tagliabue will be enshrined as part of the 2020 class voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue delivers his State of the NFL remarks ahead of Super Bowl XL in Detroit, in this Friday, Feb. 3, 2006, file photo. Tagliabue will be enshrined as part of the 2020 class voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Even now, with the benefit of hindsight and the discovery nearly two decades ago of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), Tagliabue staunchly defends his decision in 1994 to enlist a rheumatologist, since-retired Elliot Pellman, rather than a brain specialist to lead a league committee formed to study the effects of head injuries. In 2003, the Pellman-led committee released a report that minimized the cumulative effect of concussions and downplayed the risk of players returning to the same game after suffering a concussion — reflecting direction that was the polar opposite to pillars that are at the foundation of concussion protocols established more than a decade ago by the league and the NFLPA.

“The criticism of having Pellman as chairman of the committee, I think was way off-base,” Tagliabue said.

Pellman, formerly the New York Jets physician, was recommended by former team owner Leon Hess. He ultimately became Tagliabue’s personal physican, too.

“I selected Pellman because of the (former Jets wide receiver) Al Toon retirement (after repeated concussions),” Tagliabue added. "When Al Toon retired (after the 1992 season) and said, ‘I’ve been told to retire by the team physicians,’ Leon Hess called me up and said, ‘You should talk to our team physician because he’s been through hell, working with specialists, to get the coach to agree that he was going to tell the player that he was going to have to retire.

“It was clear then and to some extent is clear now. The biggest challenge was changing the culture.”

That “change-the-culture” mantra certainly wasn’t always Tagliabue’s bottom-line public response to the concussion issue.

What could he have done differently?

“It’s easy to say that we should have put more money into research,” Tagliabue said. “But would that have made difference? Here we are, almost 20 years later and a lot of the additional money into research — not just by the NFL, but by the Department of Defense and a lot of other institutions — and they still don’t have an answer that everyone agrees on.”

Yeah, but the NFL has come a long way on concussion as the science and technology has evolved.

Tagliabue doesn’t deny that his reputation related to concussions took a severe hit — and maybe has never recovered — with his remarks at a summit of pro sports commissioners at the YMCA in New York in 1994. That’s when, in the aftermath of gruesome head injuries suffered by high-profile quarterbacks Troy Aikman and Steve Young, Tagliabue dismissed a question about concussions as “one of those pack journalism issues.”

With that gaffe, Tagliabue became the face of the NFL's indifference to the concussion issue, even as he worked behind the scenes at that time to formulate the aforementioned committee and institute other safety initiatives.

“I don’t think all the writers saw what was going on,” Tagliabue reflected. “What I basically said was that you can’t be making statements about concussions because we didn’t know what the situation was. The data that we had was completely inadequate.”

Here’s to hoping that when he gives his induction speech on Saturday night, Tagliabue will demonstrate how his thinking has progressed on the impact of concussions. As a member of the Hall of Fame selection committee for more than two decades, I can attest that It was surely the elephant in the room of selectors that forced him to pay a price with his delayed entry into the Hall. I’d suspect that in the minds of some — including some former NFL players and family members — whatever Tagliabue may say on the Hall stage can’t make up for the NFL’s stumbles during his tenure. Yet owning up to it won’t hurt.

This, even as he deals with his own health issues. Nearly three years ago, Tagliabue was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system. He said that he is in the early stages with his condition and hasn’t experienced tremors or balance issues. He drove himself to the interview.

"I work out every day, including an hour of walking,” Tagliabue said. “For Parkinson’s, they say an hour of exercise is worth more than the medication. So, I take a bunch of pills and I walk every day.”

He also had hip replacement surgery in 2020, and a stent was inserted in his aorta earlier this year.

“My wife (Chan) says, ‘You have an annual visit to the doctor for infrastructure repair. What’s coming up next year?’

“I don’t care what comes up,” Tagliabue said. “As long as I’m still around to do it.”

As Commissioner, Tagliabue undoubtedly operated with a spunk on many issues behind closed doors, while his public persona was largely reserved, if not stoic. Yet listen to him now. On several topics, he allowed himself to unplug in ways that he wouldn’t — or couldn’t — while running the NFL’s headquarters.

Asked about factors that led him to step away from the NFL, Tagliabue intimated that the repetition of the deals for labor and TV had taken a toll.

“The other thing was that I was losing patience,” he said. “To be Commissioner, you really have to have a lot of patience to put up with a lot of bull——. And you only get consensus by talking to people. You’ve got to talk to 20 people to get a consensus.

“There were a number of things where owners were asking me to do things and I just said, ‘I’m set in the way I’m doing things. I’m not going to be here forever.’ “

Other intriguing thoughts:

— On the Hall of Fame process: “If you’re not a player or coach, you should be dead before you are considered for the Hall of Fame. With the owners particularly, it gets to be political. … And the owners are part of the politicking.

"With players and coaches, you can measure. How many games did you win? With owners, there’s no way to measure what they’re doing for the league. With a few exceptions. Was Eddie DeBartolo responsible (for the 49ers winning five Super Bowls)? I don’t think so. And Eddie gets into the Hall of Fame, as did Bill Walsh, Joe Montana, Steve Young, Ronnie Lott. Eddie was big politics by Carmen (Policy). That’s just one example.”

— On the NFL’s economic boom and what owners should do with profits: “As soon as I heard about Patrick Mahomes’ contract (10 years, $500 million, signed in 2020), I said to my wife, ‘Can you imagine one guy with a half-billion for playing football for 10 years? One guy. Why can’t the owners figure out a way to come up with a billion dollars and give it away to kids?”

At this point, I asked Tagliabue if he did enough to promote such thinking when he was Commissioner.

“The answer is no,” he said. “The biggest thing we did, we set up a youth football fund.”

When Tagliabue became involved with the league, initially as outside counsel shortly before the merger in 1970, the NFL’s total annual revenue was $130 million. Now the revenues exceed $16 billion per year.

“So, the question to me is, ‘What else are you going to spend your money on, other than enriching owners and players and coaches?’ ” Tagliabue said. “I think what (Ravens owner) Steve Bisciotti did (in June) with that $5 million gift to set up scholarships with the Ravens, supporting kids to attend Black colleges in Maryland – the whole league should be doing that.”

Tagliabue, in addition to serving as senior counsel for Covington & Burling, is chairman of the board for RISE, the non-profit organization established by Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross with the purpose of addressing racial equality issues through programs and partnerships. He contends that a formula for the NFL to set up a $1 billion scholarship fund in 10 years could work if each team contributes $3 million per year — coming out of the salary cap, with half contributed from the players' share of revenues — over that timeline.

“Do it!” Tagliabue said. “You could use it to fund kids to go to historically Black colleges, or just colleges in general. I was always struck by Morehouse, where the businessman (Robert Smith) gave $35 million (and) picked up all the all the student debt. If one man can put up $35 million, why can’t 32 teams…

“That’s what they should do. And talk to Patrick Mahomes and Russell Wilson. Those guys would be the first to say, ‘Let’s do it.’ “

— On the NFL’s issues in hiring Black coaches, and the effectiveness of the Rooney Rule he helped establish: “After the riots in 1968 and the assassinations of Martin Luther King (Jr.) and Robert F. Kennedy, the Kerner Commission report said, ‘America had become two nations: One black and one white.' My conclusion on the Rooney Rule is that it’s still true of the NFL. Two nations. One black. One white. And until the owners recognize that and get beyond that, there’s not going to be much progress. You can require interviews, but people have to get beyond race.”

Tagliabue has demonstrated social consciousness for many years in several instances. He selected Art Shell as his Hall of Fame presenter in part to pay homage to the plight of Black coaches and to acknowledge the impact of historically black colleges and universities on NFL history. (Shell, who attended Maryland Eastern Shore en route to Hall of Fame status as a tackle, in 1989 became the NFL’s first Black head coach in modern history).

Yet when it comes to the most poignant symbol of social justice in the NFL, Colin Kaepernick, Tagliabue is rather measured with his words. Kaepernick, the quarterback who led the 49ers to Super Bow 47l, has been shamefully shut out of the NFL since 2016, when he ignited a social movement by kneeling during the national anthem to protest the killing of unarmed African-Americans by police and other social injustices.

“You can’t like it,” Tagliabue said. “I have refused to say anything about it. It’s easy to be a Monday morning quarterback. But it certainly was not good for anybody. I don’t think it was good for the league. It was not good for him, either, the way it worked out.”

It’s fair to wonder how Tagliabue — who ushered in the Rooney Rule and took a stand against Arizona over the MLK Holiday — would have handled the Kaepernick saga had it occurred on his watch.

“It’s easy to say I would have done it differently, but I don’t know,” Tagliabue said. “I guess the way I think about it is that if Gene (Upshaw) were alive and we were dealing with it together, we would have figured out some way to solve the problem.”

Several years ago, Tagliabue was approached by renowned author Michael MacCambridge about writing a book on his career. MacCambridge put together a proposal which was circulated to agents in the publishing industry.

“And they said, ‘He’s been gone more than 10 years. He’s irrelevant. The only thing that would make your book salable is if you were critical of your successor or if you told stories out of school about the owners. You’ve either got to criticize Roger and create issues over Bountygate, Deflategate, whatever issues he’s had. That’ll sell. Controversy sells. Or if you say (some owner) has six girlfriends … that’s the kind of stuff you’ve got to be prepared to write,’ “ Tagliabue said. “I’m not going to do that kind of book. I have no interest in that. Michael wasn’t interested in that kind of book. I said forget it. I’m not writing a book.”

Then came the Hall of Fame selection. And Tagliabue has written a book, collaborating with MacCambridge for a 140-page, self-published memoir, “Jersey City to America’s Game: Memories & Reflections.” The book isn’t available to the public. Tagliabue printed about 1,000 copies that were disturbed to staff members, team owners, friends and various associates as a token of gratitude. It turned out to be his pandemic project. With the Hall induction delayed a year due to COVID-19, Tagliabue had ample time to fine-tune reflections on his life and career.

“We’re not selling it to anybody,” Tagliabue said. “It’s non-commercial. (Pro Football Hall of Fame executive director) Dave Baker said, ‘Give me 5,000 copies. I’ll sell ‘em at the Hall of Fame. Give me an exclusive. I’ll get it in my gift shop.’

“I said, ‘I can’t do that.’ It’s not commercial. There are no footnotes. Now for MacCambridge, it might become the basis of a good book. We think it’s pretty good. He said, ’This could be the spine of a good book.' But I’m done with it. I’m not writing any more.”

Figuratively, the book on Tagliabue that culminates with his Hall of Fame selection has already been written. And what a piece of work it has been.

Follow USA TODAY Sports' Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Paul Tagliabue opens up about concussions, Parkinson's, NFL legacy