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Tagliabue was born in Jersey City, New Jersey, the third of four sons of Charles and May Tagliabue. He is of Italian descent. Tagliabue received an athletic scholarship to play basketball at Georgetown University and was captain of the 1961-62 team. He graduated in 1962 as president of his senior class, a Rhodes Scholar finalist and a Dean's List graduate.
During his tenure as commissioner, the NFL expanded from 28 teams to 32. New franchises were announced in 1993 to begin play in 1995 in Charlotte and Jacksonville. Subsequent moves by other teams resulted in a 31st team being added at Cleveland in 1999; this team, though technically an expansion team, inherited the name, colors, and history (including all team and individual records) from the Cleveland Browns, who had relocated to Baltimore in 1996 as the Baltimore Ravens. The 32nd franchise was the Houston Texans, added in 2002.
NFL in Europe
The NFL continued to play pre-season games in Europe with the American Bowl series. Paul Tagliabue started a spring developmental league, the World League of American Football (WLAF), with seven teams in North America, plus three in Europe. The European teams dominated in 1991, the first season. After the second season, 1992, in which US-based teams played in the World Bowl, the World League was shut down as it was no success in the US. In 1995, the spring league returned as the NFL Europe with six teams in Europe. When Tagliabue retired, five teams were based in Germany. Tagliabue's successor Roger Goodell shut down the NFL Europe after the 2007 season. but replaced it with the NFL International Series in October 2007 with regular season games in London.
In 1995, Los Angeles lost both its franchises, as the Los Angeles Rams relocated to St. Louis, and the Raiders returned to Oakland. In 1996, the Browns moved to Baltimore, under a new name, as indicated above. In 1997, the Houston Oilers relocated to Tennessee, for one year in Memphis and another year using Vanderbilt Stadium as their home field. (The team changed its name from the Oilers to the Titans upon moving to their permanent stadium in Nashville.)
Response to September 11 attacks
Two days after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Tagliabue announced that the games scheduled for the upcoming weekend were cancelled, citing the magnitude of the events and security concerns. It was the first time the league canceled an entire week's slate of games since the 1987 NFL strike.
A week later, it was announced that the postponed games would be added to the end of the regular season, pushing the Super Bowl into February for the first time.
Tagliabue has been praised for these politically related actions taken as NFL commissioner:
He took a stand against the State of Arizona for refusing to establish a state holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr., like other states had done. In 1993, Super Bowl XXVII was to be held for the first time in Arizona, but after an election, Arizona rejected establishment of a Martin Luther King state holiday. Subsequently, Tagliabue moved the Super Bowl to Pasadena; Arizona would finally host Super Bowl XXX in 1996.
On September 4, 2014, Tagliabue was named to the executive board of DC2024, a group trying to bring the 2024 Summer Olympics to Washington, D.C.
Tagliabue won the 1992 Eagle Award from the United States Sports Academy. The Eagle Award is the Academy's highest international honor and was awarded to Tagliabue for his significant contributions to international sport.