After almost 7 years, it's time NFL made amends to Baltimore

John Steadman

March 18, 1991|By John Steadman

Soon it will be seven years (the anniversary date is March 28) and the National Football League will be reminded once again of the most ignominious moment in its history: a team changing cities under the cover of darkness, much the way a common criminal hits and runs. The other team owners read about it in their newspaper and so did the commissioner, Pete Rozelle.

That's how Baltimore was deprived of a treasure it owned for 35 years, the Colts being shanghaied to Indianapolis without approval or forewarning. The league awakened one morning to find out it was all over in Baltimore. A mugging in the world of professional sports, causing every fair-minded citizen in the country to wonder how such plunder could have happened.

The league, which conducted itself in a professional manner, suddenly had its good name besmirched with criticism it didn't deserve. And all because of what had transpired in Baltimore, a team slamming the door in the face of the public and stomping on rich tradition.

It was without precedent in any sport, a club leaving on its own without authorization. The action was so humiliating the league organized a formula for proper withdrawal of a franchise from a city. As a for-instance, when the Cardinals left St. Louis for Phoenix, the NFL knew what was about to happen. Advance notice had been provided in writing.

And also in the case of St. Louis, the proper channels were precisely followed as owner Bill Bidwill first asked for permission and then a vote was taken granting official sanctioning of the transfer. That, unfortunately, wasn't the way it evolved in Baltimore, which was robbed of a team it had named, the Colts, and then nurtured to historical heights.

In Hawaii, at this moment, the NFL is holding its annual owners meeting. Expansion, at this point, is getting only cursory attention. It's being talked about in general terms because the expansion/realignment committee will focus on the subject at a later date.

But Baltimore stands and waits with hat, rather helmet, in hand. The league, it is hoped, will welcome the opportunity to again put a team in Baltimore. It's a city committed to building a new stadium in the downtown area on 85 acres, where a baseball park will be ready for the 1992 season. All the financing has been approved for the football facility.

"That's the important part for Baltimore," said Dan Rooney, president of the Pittsburgh Steelers and head of the group that will survey the expansion sites and make recommendations. It's believed old families of the NFL -- the Maras, McCaskeys (nee Halas) and Rooneys -- would want to see Baltimore rewarded for personal reasons and what it could mean financially to the NFL.

Baltimore shouldn't have to sell itself, but if it has to then let it be pointed out it is ideally situated, along the northeast corridor, making it within easy proximity of Washington, Philadelphia, New York and Pittsburgh. It has a strong population base, is located in an impressive television market, has the financing in place to pay for a $200 million-plus stadium and is ecstatic over the possibility of being included in expansion.

If a team is awarded to Baltimore it has an existing stadium (62,213 seats) that could be used temporarily while the new one is built. The present facility is in better condition than it has ever been because of the money spent on it in the last five years. No other city that had a franchise taken from it still has a band that's marching and fan clubs that meet every month in anticipation of a return. That's how it is in Baltimore.

Commissioner Paul Tagliabue is profoundly aware of the Baltimore story and its sad aftermath. It was Tagliabue, then an attorney engaged by the league, who helped untangle the knot of legal problems that came to the fore after the Colts bolted from their home pasture. So he doesn't have to be brought up to date on what transpired. He lived the experience.

With the utmost respect for all the cities standing in line for expansion, including St. Louis, Oakland, Charlotte, Jacksonville, Memphis, Sacramento and San Antonio, there is no one place that offers as strong an attachment to the NFL as Baltimore, nor any with its potential.

Just maybe the owners will be wise and fair to do what is (1) seemingly morally principled; and (2) financially advantageous for themselves. Such can be accomplished if they eventually decide to come back to Baltimore, a city that has been deprived. They've been too long gone.

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