Have we no shame?

Jeffrey M. Landaw

April 30, 1991|By Jeffrey M. Landaw | Jeffrey M. Landaw,Jeffrey M. Landaw is a Sun copy editor.

AT FIRST, Herbert Belgrad and Victor Kiam were blandness itself when the idea of moving the New England Patriots to Baltimore came up.

Kiam, the Patriots' owner who's threatened to move if Massachusetts doesn't build him a new stadium, insisted he was meeting with Maryland officials only as a favor to a friend. Belgrad, the chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority, said Baltimore was still interested chiefly in getting an expansion National Football League team. He said he was talking to Kiam only to build good will for the expansion drive and would only talk to an established team if it had already made up its mind to move.

Belgrad eventually backed away, saying Kiam wouldn't be coming here for a meeting. But it was still too much. Baltimore shouldn't have made any overtures to Kiam, and should have answered any he might have made with a hard slap in the face. And so should every other city wanting a major-league sports franchise.

"The way the game operates," Belgrad said, "is that the owners use one city as leverage against the others to get the best benefits for the team." So without even a blush, Belgrad & Co. made Baltimore a passive participant in the most squalid, demeaning, everybody-loses part of the modern sports industry: the cities' abandonment of self-respect as they chase the favors of -- in the irresistible phrase Frank Deford used in Sports Illustrated some years ago -- "some pot-bellied widget manufacturer."

The franchise-juggling that Belgrad & Co. accept so calmly makes a lie of the ethic that keeps sports alive: Reward skill, daring and discipline, not incompetence, bad faith and special pleading. Teams almost never start looking to move until the owners who ruined them need a place to escape.

That's certainly true of the Patriots. Kiam took them over in 1988 when the Sullivan family, which had founded the team in 1960, ran into deep debt and organizational chaos. They went from nine victories and seven losses that first year, to 5-11 in 1989, to 1-15 last year, when Kiam also made a double-barreled, chrome-plated, neon-lit fool of himself in the case of Lisa Olson, the woman sportswriter who was verbally abused by several Patriots when she tried to interview them in the locker room. Fined and rebuked by the league, and threatened with a boycott of his business, Remington products, he made a form of apology, only to tell a dirty joke about the affair during the Persian Gulf war.

So is it any surprise that at the Patriots' last home game, their fans were outnumbered by those of the visiting New York Giants? This team's ills won't be cured by either a new stadium or a move. They illustrate, for the hundredth time, the great unacknowledged axiom: Big-league ball clubs get the support they deserve.

Belgrad's point that Baltimore would only talk to a team that had already decided to move barely deserves refutation. Receiving stolen goods is a felony whether or not the goods are stolen to order.

Baltimore's fans and sportswriters seem to have reacted with healthy contempt to the hint of the Patriot move. Perhaps we learned something from our chase of the St. Louis Cardinals, another self-made failure that its owner dangled here before he found more creative ways to fail in Phoenix. A different question is whether we'll remember our lessons if we don't get an expansion team and someone comes along with a more plausible case than Kiam's.

We might learn even more from Oakland, Calif. Unlike most teams that move, the Oakland Raiders were in good shape on the field and at the box office when Los Angeles made them a better offer in 1982. That was when Oakland learned that no amount of good will or good faith protects the fans from the cold, calculated kick in the teeth.

The Raiders found Los Angeles not to their liking -- proving, as the man said, that time wounds all heels -- so last year they offered to come back to Oakland. No apologies, no promises to reform -- just offer the right package and forget our betrayal.

Oakland's city government did offer a fat package. In fact, the package was so fat -- more than $600 million over 15 years -- that it provoked a backlash in the city, which, like Massachusetts, needs money for far more important things. The plan was scaled down several times and finally killed, and the Raiders agreed to stay in Los Angeles -- until the lease runs out.

Oakland didn't quite rise to the level of renunciation of a Henry James hero, because its rejection of the Raiders was based on their price as well as the city's soul. But it was still impressive, because the city had such a tempting chance to right such an obvious wrong. If it could refuse that chance, we, and other cities, could learn that having pro sports is nice, but other things are better.

Being able, for instance, to look ourselves in the face without a rush of shame.

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