Paul Tagliabue Enshrinement Speech

PAUL TAGLIABUE: It's like a dream come true, I'll tell you that.  Thank you all very, very much. I'm honored to enter the Hall of Fame in this Centennial Class.  It spans pro football history, from Duke Slater's achievements in the difficult days of the NFL's first generation, to players, coaches and others who have excelled in recent decades. 

I'm thrilled to celebrate with all of you, football fans who've come to Canton from all across America. Thank you for your remarkable support that you've shown for your own teams, year in and year out, and this weekend's new Hall of Famers. 

Art Shell, wherever you are ‑‑ there he is ‑‑ thanks to you for all you've done for football and for our country. You're a great leader, and I thank you for being my presenter. 

(Applause.)

I'm also grateful for the many people in the league and throughout the broader football community whose support has brought me here this evening. These folks knew what we had done in my 17 years as commissioner, how it was done, and what we had not done. Thanks especially to Sal Paolantonio and the many others with whom I've already shared my appreciation. 

I grew up a long way from the Hall of Fame, in Jersey City, New Jersey, with rock‑solid values that I learned from my parents. They taught me to work hard at whatever you do, and they taught me to respect everyone, unless and until they show that they don't deserve to be respected. 

In the '40s and '50s, we lived in a neighborhood of hard‑working Italians and other ethnics. They loved sports.  My three brothers and I were immersed in football and basketball. In 1958 I went to Georgetown on a basketball scholarship. 

My journey in pro football began in 1969, quite a few years ago, as a young attorney in Washington, D.C., representing the NFL. Over the next two decades, I was privileged to learn a lot about the game and the business of football, working with Commissioner Pete Rozelle and league leaders, giants of the league, such as the New York Giants’ Wellington Mara, the Chiefs’ Lamar Hunt, the Steelers’ Dan Rooney and the Cowboys’ Tex Schramm. 

(Cheers.)

It was Dan Rooney who explained to me early on, and I quote him, he said, "Paul, some teams are a lot better at winning than others, but when it comes to league business, we're all equal. So in deciding what the league should do, don't give too much weight to any one owner." It was good advice. 

Commissioner Rozelle was superb at persuading owners to put aside their own agendas for the overall good of the league. When I succeeded him in 1989, I knew I wanted to maintain his fundamental principle: Think league first. Those were the three words he said so often. Think league first. 

While addressing the league's pressing challenges, I wanted to keep his bedrock principle in mind. For 20 years, the NFL had been locked in a bitter, often destructive war with the Players Union, the NFL Players Association, over free agency and other matters. 

Finding a way to end this battle became my top priority. Gene Upshaw, the leader of the Players Association, was the crucial person on the union side. He knew well that two decades of conflict with management, learning from the union's early leaders, such as John Mackey, Bill Curry, and Alan Page, all of whom through went the early battles. 

On the club side, Dan Rooney, a 20‑year veteran of the struggle, was equally important. In my very first discussions with Gene, we both recognized something that seems simple, but it's pretty complex. If labor peace was to be achieved, the clubs and the players had to become genuine partners. 

In some ways ‑‑ in some ways ‑‑ the commissioner and the head of the Players Association would always be adversaries, but they did not have to be unrelenting antagonists. It took three years, but by 1993 we produced a collective bargaining agreement whose core remains sound today. 

It's been seen as the sanest economic system in big‑time sports. It included free agency for the players. It tied a salary cap to a percentage of growing revenue. It required all clubs to spend above a salary floor. 

The system put every team on a roughly equal footing in the football competition, and it took a great player and a great owner. It took a Gene Upshaw and a Dan Rooney to reach that kind of a compromise and that kind of a solution to a complicated problem. 

That agreement enabled the league to expand with new teams, to build new stadiums, to keep teams in their traditional markets, including, of course, the Browns. It also helped us operate decisively in times of crisis, such as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. 

The players and the coaches are the most visible side of the league, the focus of intense competition and the annual quest for the perfect season. But there is a less visible side of the NFL: thousands of talented, passionate individuals whose love of the game and dedicated work is critical to the league's success. 

I'm thrilled ‑‑ I cannot state it enough ‑‑ I'm thrilled that so many of these colleagues are here tonight, outstanding talents in the league office and other league entities, from the NFL Management Council to NFL Properties, NFL Films to the NFL Network and NFL Europe. All of you have my everlasting gratitude for everything we accomplished together during my 17 years as commissioner. 

Most important of all, my deepest appreciation goes to my wife and partner, Chan, who is somewhere over here on the left, as far as I can tell. 

(Cheers and applause.)

That's where they are, and my grandkids as well. Drew and Emily, my son and daughter, they bore the brunt of a long career, sometimes challenging, over four decades. Through it all, they've given me unwavering love and support, invaluable insights, and occasionally they even gave me a dose of reality, which was sometimes lacking. 

In examining what makes the NFL so compelling, I always return to the players who make the game what it is. The athletes who thrive in the competitive environment of the National Football League tend to be intensely motivated individuals with clear values and exceptional goals. 

Our players in the Hall of Fame epitomize these qualities. They understand work ethic, teamwork, accountability, and they are committed to be the best, on and off the field. We need to respect the players for having these qualities and for what they represent as leaders in sports and in society. 

The perspectives of the players should be considered when they speak out on issues important to the league and to their communities. 

(Cheers and applause.)

As Edge [Edgerrin James] put it: Don't speak out until you learn; don't act until you know. The voices of players need to be heard. They need to be debated.  And ‑‑ and ‑‑ and they need to be criticized if their views are not well grounded. 

But listen to the players, because they have a lot to teach all of us. They should not be demonized with slurs or disinformation and misinformation. We've learned over the recent years, the players' causes can create dialogue that identifies common interests that we all share and that can open our minds and the minds of all of us in some ways that we wouldn't otherwise do. 

For decades, the NFL has served to unite people from all over America. You can see that here tonight. You can see it every weekend for more than 20 weeks a year.  The league has served to unite people, irrespective of class, creed, color and attributes. The league has served as a focal point of shared community interests and civic pride for millions of people. 

But these qualities and outcomes cannot be taken for granted. It's up to us to make sure that they continue. The NFL in the 21st century is not going to be the NFL that it was in the 20th century. It's going to continue to evolve as our society evolves. But we need to remain committed both to evolution, to change and to tradition. 

I'm proud and grateful that I've played a small part in shaping the evolution of the National Football League in the last four decades. To everyone here in person or sharing this evening from afar, thank you all for honoring us and for helping us celebrate the past, the present and the future of pro football. It's as great as it's ever been. Thank you very much.

(Cheers.)



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