Paul Tagliabue, who served as NFL commissioner from 1989-2006, surely doubted whether he would ever stand where he did Saturday. After he was turned away from Canton in the standard voting process four times, Tagliabue finally found his way into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in the Centennial Class of 2020.
“It’s a dream come true. I’ll tell you that,” Tagliabue said in his 9-minute, 9-second speech. “Thank you all very, very much. I’m honored to enter the Hall of Fame in this Centennial Class. It spans pro football history.”
Tagliabue presided over a period of tremendous growth for the league following the Pete Rozelle era. But he also was dogged by criticisms of his role in the way the league addressed the concussion issue, infamously downplaying head injuries in 1994.
Tagliabue spent much of his speech talking about how he achieved unprecedented labor peace with the players.
“In examining what makes the NFL so compelling, I always return to the players who make the game what it is,” Tagliabue said. “The athletes who thrive in the competitive enviornment of the National Football League tend to be intensly motivated individuals with clear values and high morals. Our players in the Hall of Fame epitomize these qualities. They understand work ethic, team work, accountability, and they are committed to do their 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. As Edge [Edgerrin James] put it, don’t speak out until you learn. Don’t act before you know. The voices of the 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. We’ve learned over the recent years that the players’ causes can create dialogue. . . . For decades, the NFL has served to unite people all over America. You can see it here tonight. You can see it every weekend. The league has served to unite people irrespective of creed, color and attributes. The league has served as a focal point of shared community interest and civic pride for millions of people. But these qualities and outcomes cannot be taken for granted. It’s up to us to ensure they continue. The NFL in the 21st Century is not going to the NFL it was in the 20th Century. It’s going to continue to evolve as society evolves, but we need to remain committed both to evolution of change and tradition. I’m proud and grateful to have played a small part in shaping the evolution of the National Football League in the last four decades. 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.”