National Football League Commissioner Paul Tagliabue is no stranger to New Haven: his daughter graduated from Yale in 1994 and later married a fellow Yalie.

At the Saybrook College Master’s Tea, sponsored by the Gordon Grand Fellowship at Yale, the commissioner spoke candidly on a wide range of topics to an audience of about 70 at the President’s House. Tagliabue discussed the highs and lows of the NFL, ranging from the league’s recent expansion to the problems young athletes face when turning pro.

Tagliabue, an attorney and former Georgetown University basketball player, kept the conversation informal, explaining why he thinks the NFL has been so enormously successful in recent years. The league has expanded to 32 teams and generates $3.5 billion in annual revenue.

The right mix for a prosperous league is complicated, he said. Most essentially — and most obviously — the league must deliver good athletic competition.

Tagliabue said 90 percent of that revenue is generated in the packaging of the actual games, from broadcast rights to ticket licenses. If the competition is sub-par and fans fail to tune in or show up, then the league’s business model fails.

Other leagues, such as Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League, have had huge disparity in finances and talent amongst their teams. But Tagliabue pointed to several specific initiatives by the NFL as reasons for its stiff competition year in and year out.

“The NFL is the only professional sports league that shares revenue equally among all its teams,” he said.

Along with revenue sharing, the commissioner said a well-devised salary cap and the power of a collective bargaining system are other chief structural ingredients in the success of his league.

The conversation turned inevitably to the rash of bad publicity the league has recently received, from Ray Lewis’ and Rae Carruth’s murder trials to former Green Bay Packer Mark Chmura’s recent acquittal of sexual assault charges. Tagliabue remained frank and continued to show a comprehensive understanding of the operations of his league. He cited the numerous programs the NFL has instituted since the 1980s not only to help players adjust to a life of wealth and celebrity, but also contribute to their communities.

“You’d be amazed at the challenges these players face,” he said. “When their salaries are made public, everyone they’ve ever known calls to try and get a piece. In one sense they’re gladiators, in one sense they’re vulnerable.”

Consequently, the NFL is involved in continuously advising and counseling its players, but Tagliabue said the league is also willing to punish them when they do “something detrimental to the league.”

Students said they were impressed with Tagliabue’s honesty on all fronts.

“I though he was very honest about the business aspect of the NFL,” Fred Loya ’03 said. “He didn’t really go into too much detail about [the players’ misconduct], instead wanting to show the other side of what the league’s trying to do. They seem to be taking all the measures they can to help their players.”

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