Carmen Policy for NFL Commissioner
by Glenn Dickey
Mar 21, 2006

THERE WILL be many men mentioned as possible replacements for retiring NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, but the best candidate would be his friend from law school days, Carmen Policy.

Policy has much to recommend him. He has run two clubs, the San Francisco 49ers and Cleveland Browns. Even before he was named president of the 49ers, he represented them at the league meetings, because Eddie De Bartolo had no interest in the meetings. Clearly, he knows what the owners want and need.

Though he’s not a football man, he has more knowledge of the game than Tagliabue, whose contact with the game has been purely administrative. With the 49ers, Carmen had direct input into football decisions, though he was never the primary decision-maker. I was not close to the Cleveland operation, of course – though we spoke fairly frequently on the telephone in those days – but I would imagine that he was equally involved there.

Most important, Carmen is the champion schmoozer of all time. He has an incredible ability to make the person he’s talking to feel that he’s the most important person in the world at that moment. He has friends who are among the most important CEOs in the world, and the media people with whom he has dealt – of course, including me – absolutely love him. He would charm the severest critics of the NFL.

The most important part of the commissioner’s job is dealing with the owners. Though the job ostensibly is to supervise the entire league, there is a clear division between the commissioner’s office and the Players Association. The PA has the responsibility for looking out for the interests of the players, and I think Gene Upshaw has done a good job of that. Upshaw got criticized for giving up too much in the Collective Bargaining Agreement that included the first salary cap, but that criticism came from those who didn’t really understand the situation. Uphaw did, and he was realistic in what could be expected. The agreement he negotiated has served the players well.

As commissioner, Policy’s main responsibility, then, would be to deal with the owners. There has been a split within the owners’ ranks lately, between the high revenue teams like the Cowboys and Redskins and the low-revenue teams like the two ragtag operations we have in the Bay Area. Policy would be able to pull 31 of the 32 owners together. Nobody can reason with Al Davis, so he’d continue his lone wolf role.

SINCE I’VE been covering pro football, I’ve known two commissioners, Pete Rozelle and Tagliabue. It probably won’t surprise you to hear that I liked Rozelle much better.

Rozelle was a charmer. He had come from a public relations background – he started at USF when Pete Newell was the basketball coach for the Dons – and he always realized how important it was to work with the media. He always returned phone calls, which is unusual for a commissioner. (Bud Selig is also good at that.) I never abused the privilege, but I always knew that, if I had a serious question, I could get an answer.

Parenthetically, that led to an amusing experience during the trial in Los Angeles during which Davis won the right to move the Raiders south. During testimony one day, Davis claimed that Rozelle had called “a reporter” and told him that the league would change its rules so that measures required only a 75 per cent approval by owners instead of 100 per cent. When we found ourselves standing together as we left the courtroom at the recess, Davis said, “I was talking about you in there.” I knew that. I also knew that Rozelle hadn’t called me. My information had come from another source.

Sometimes, it seemed Rozelle’s whole staff consisted of former PR men. Whatever, the NFL was an incredibly easy operation to deal with when Rozelle was in charge. If you needed information, you could get it swiftly and accurately, if not directly from Rozelle then from Joe Browne or Don Weiss. They organized credential distribution, room availability at the Super Bowl and championship games, even supplied rental cars to media (and players). Rozelle knew that most of the fans’ opinion of the league would come from what they read or saw and heard on TV and the radio. (No big internet connection then.)

Rozelle wasn’t just PR. Though he didn’t originate the idea of revenue sharing (that was first proposed by his predecessor, Bert Bell), he made certain that philosophy extended to national TV rights, which were split evenly between all the clubs in the league. The original amounts weren’t high, but Rozelle knew they would rise, and he kept negotiating contracts that went higher and higher.

Tagliabue has been more of a facilitator than innovator, continuing much of Rozelle’s pattern without the human substance. He lacks the warmth of Rozelle, and he certainly doesn’t have the easy exchanges with the media that Rozelle had, but the league’s public relations arm remains as good as ever, with Greg Aiello now in charge. Even when they disagree with a column – as has happened with a few of mine – they voice the disagreement so smoothly, it feels like a compliment.

The NFL has certainly made big strides during Tagliabue’s time, especially in the generation of revenues. It is a business, after all. He has pushed hard, and usually successfully, for new stadiums. (The 49ers remain a conspicuous failure in that regard, as in others.). Competitive balance has meant more different teams in the playoffs, though the New England Patriots still managed to win three Super Bowls in four seasons.

By any objective standards, Tagliabue’s run has been a success. I guess that makes up for the fact that he’s a cold fish.

AS COMMISSIONER, Policy would be more in the Rozelle mold than Tagliabue.

I haven’t talked directly yet to Carmen about this, though I hope to soon. He’s been busy planning his new winery in Yountville, about two miles east of The French Laundry, with grapes set to be harvested this fall.

Yet, I know he hoped to get back in the NFL after he sold his minority ownership in the Browns. He could put together a group to buy the 49ers in a New York minute, but John York doesn’t want to sell.

Policy loves the Bay Area, for all the usual reasons, but I’m sure he could make the adjustment to living in New York. That city also has some good restaurants, I’m told.

His name isn’t among those currently listed as the top candidates, but as John Madden noted on KCBS this morning, the next commissioner will be a compromise candidate. Policy is already close to the owners. As a compromise candidate or as the first choice, he’d be the logical selection.

Even if it means forgoing the supervision of the first wine grape harvest.

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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