National Football League Commissioner Paul J. Tagliabue knew when to leave. That's not a disparaging comment. It's a recognition that Tagliabue is leaving at the top of his game, and at the precise moment when his inevitable departure from a post he has held ably for 17 years offers the best chance for a smooth transition.
Tagliabue retires after negotiating major labor agreements with the league's players, and completing another round of the league-sustaining television arrangements that keep the NFL operation going. It's a time of slack water, and the perfect time for him to climb out of the day-to-day operational stream.
In putting the NFL first, Tagliabue runs true to form. He repeatedly cautioned team owners that labor peace was absolutely vital if the NFL were to flourish. He also rebuilt a strike-damaged relationship between the league and the NFL Players Association by negotiating, with union leader Gene Upshaw, a breakthrough free agency and salary cap arrangement in 1992.
The strength of that relationship just got the NFL through thrice-extended contract deadlines that culminated this month in a new pact satisfactory to every team except Buffalo and Cincinnati. During his tenure, the league expanded, but teams also moved, Los Angeles dropped off the NFL city list and small-market teams had revenue-sharing issues.
With the television revenue and player contract deals done, though, Tagliabue has his chance to retire with his league both peaceful and prosperous. He leaves a winner.