Paul Tagliabue in 2017
Paul Tagliabue in 2017 Credit: Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy/Flickr

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In mid-January, the Pro Football Hall of Fame righted a number of wrongs in its selection process, the most egregious being the continued rejection and incomprehensible omission, year after year, of former commissioner Paul Tagliabue.

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the league, the Hall of Fame picked a “blue-ribbon panel” to select 15 new inductees, a total of ten players, two coaches, and three contributors. Tagliabue, a Georgetown graduate who now lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland, had been a finalist four previous times in the regular selection process, only to be spurned. This time, he finally, and deservedly, made it.

For 29 years, I served as a selector for the Hall of Fame. The process is simple enough. Media members from each of the 32 NFL teams, as well as a number of at-large selectors, vote by mail over the summer from a long preliminary list of over a hundred eligible individuals, with that number pared down to 15 finalists.

On the Saturday morning before the Super Bowl, selectors on site gather in a meeting room and spend the next four to six hours debating the merits of each candidate.

The initial 15 finalists is cut down to 10, with a second cut down to the five or six finalists. Then selectors are asked to make a yes or no vote on each of the last people standing. If they receive around 80 percent of the votes (depending on how many selectors are in the room) they are set to become Hall of Famers.

And it’s all done by secret ballot, a major flaw in my opinion, allowing people in the room who never speak up in support or opposition during the discussion period to become what we called cowardly “silent assassins.”

The 15 new members announced two weeks ago were chosen by a totally different selection committee made up of several regular media selectors, coaches past and present, former players, and team executives. 

Tagliabue was one of the three contributors voted into the Hall, joining the late George Young, the long-time general manager of the New York Giants, and the late Steve Sabol, head of NFL Films for many years. Five more Hall of Fame players will be selected this Saturday by the regular media selection committee.

So why was Tagliabue denied entry for so long?

Conventional wisdom has it that media selectors thought he did not pay enough attention to the issue of head injuries. In 1994, he was quoted as saying that concussions were “one of those pack-journalism issues” and indicated the number of concussions “is relatively small; the problem is the journalist issue.”

Three years ago, he apologized, saying very publicly that he regretted those statements.

“Looking back, it was not sensible language to use to express my thoughts at the time,” he told the Talk of Fame Network. “My language was intemperate, and it led to serious misunderstanding. I overreacted on issues which we were already working on. But that doesn’t excuse the overreaction and intemperate language.

“Bottom line, it sounded like I was shooting the messenger, which was the concussion issue. My intention at the time was to make a point which could have been made fairly simply: That there was a need for better data. There was a need for more reliable information about concussions and uniformity in terms of how they were being defined in terms of severity.”

Having been in that Saturday morning, pre-Super Bowl selection meeting several times when Tagliabue was a finalist, I do not recall the concussion issue to be the major road block. I heard other specious objections to his candidacy, some involving his handling of labor issues, allowing teams to move to different cities, his failure to get a team for Los Angeles and his failure to get new stadiums in San Francisco and San Diego.

There was something else, mostly left unspoken. 

Tagliabue was a lawyer by training and temperament. He was not particularly media fuzzy-friendly, particularly during press conferences when some of his remarks could seem somewhat condescending. I had no such problem with him, either in one-on-one interviews or having him respond to my own questions in news conference situations. But some selectors clearly held a grudge.

As for the concussion issue, many of us in that room, present company included, didn’t pay much attention to the brain injury implications either during the years when Tagliabue was in charge. 

My greatest regret as a sports journalist was my failure to focus on the innate danger of America’s favorite sport. It’s not that we were sweeping it under the rug. We just didn’t know how pervasive it was, and how much damage it could lead to after careers ended. 

Few of us were reluctant to report and write about issues the league probably wanted us to avoid. We wrote about the dangers of amphetamines, about steroids, about marijuana usage, unscrupulous agents, labor unrest, greedy owners, players who broke the law.  But I, and virtually all of my colleagues, essentially stayed away from the damage inflicted on a player’s head. Tagliabue was not alone on that score.

In my mind, Tagliabue should have been a first ballot selection. The dramatic increases in television revenues, the massive growth in popularity of the sport, the relative labor peace over his tenure, the increase in the number of minority coaches and executives with the Rooney Rule in effect, were more than enough to get him in the front door—immediately.

But now, finally, that wrong has been righted.

It’s about time.

Leonard Shapiro retired in 2011 after 41 years as a sports reporter, editor, and columnist at the Washington Post.

Photo by Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy on Flickr, used under the Creative Commons BY-ND 2.0 license.