WHILE THE National Football League has been busy writing attendance records and establishing all-time highs in television ratings, it has still managed to keep charity as a continuing part of its game plan.
The NFL and United Way of America have a working agreement like no other in sports, entertainment and business. They enjoy a relationship that has lasted 16 seasons and, astonishingly, doesn't know what it is to fall into a slump or be thrown for a loss.
It has been such an outstanding arrangement that United Way has invited Paul Tagliabue, NFL commissioner, to address its national conference Monday at the Baltimore Convention Center.
More than 1,700 delegates, all volunteers from across the country, will be in Baltimore for the three-day gathering this weekend. The convention will attract corporate, labor and community representatives.
Tagliabue is being asked to address the convention so delegates can hear how football and the United Way continue to set new marks for fund raising. The scoreboard shows that since their rookie year together -- 1974 -- United Way hasn't failed to make every annual solicitation better than its previous one.
Translated into dollars, the television network time the NFL devotes to United Way is valued yearly at an estimated $40 million. Carrying a poignant message into the living rooms of America are NFL coaches, players, game officials, owners and assorted family members, each offering moving appeals to promote a variety of charitable and philanthropic endeavors. During football season, some 80 million viewers a week see the commercials.
Joseph Browne, vice-president of NFL communications, tells how it all began. In 1973, Walter Aramony, president of United Way of America, and Mario Pellegrini, then the president of United Way Production, called on then-NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle.
"It didn't take but a matter of minutes for Pete, with his perception, to understand that what Aramony and Pellegrini came to discuss could be implemented for the good of all of America," recalls Browne. "The first year of our association was exceptional in that it was the first time United Way went over [raising] $1 billion. I'd like to think the NFL had something to do with it."
"Working closely with Pete when I was a legal adviser made me realize the value of this joint affiliation with United Way," says Tagliabue. "I saw how much impact it had on the 28 teams but also the various communities."
More than 600 NFL/United Way television messages have been delivered during last 16 years.
"I can't get it out of mind when I think of the visit to a burn center in Kansas City that administered to children," Browne recalls. "Willie Lanier, the Hall of Fame linebacker, a graduate of Morgan State University, was the NFL personality in the filming. Seeing what some of those children had to endure in the way of suffering still makes me emotional when I reflect on that day."
The individual NFL teams propose the players and coaches to the league office for the television spots. Those recommended must be taking part as volunteers in the causes that are to be highlighted.
It's this element of realism that gives the spots a credibility that is easily recognizable. They are legitimate vignettes, not staged presentations.
A number of awards will be presented at this weekend's convention, including the Alexis de Tocqueville Award for outstanding volunteer achievement to developer James W. Rouse, chairman and CEO of the Enterprise Foundation and the Enterprise Development Co., in Baltimore.