Will NFL's expansion train be sidetracked by legal roadblocks?

PRO FOOTBALL

July 21, 1991|By VITO STELLINO

The NFL's expansion train is ready to leave the station.

Now the only question is whether the train will wind up on a siding to clear the way for the NFL Players Association's legal express.

When the NFL announced its expansion timetable last week, it maintained the loophole that labor-management problems could be an impediment to expansion.

The next day, the NFL owners suffered their latest court setback when a special master appointed by a federal judge in Baltimore recommended that the pension benefits be increased for retired players.

The NFL rapidly is becoming a legal version of the New England Patriots. It is involved in various court actions against the players in Baltimore, Washington, New York, Richmond, Va., and Minneapolis and is behind on virtually every front.

The courts keep rejecting NFL arguments. For example, commissioner Paul Tagliabue has called the NFLPA a "union in hiding." The courts disagreed and ruled the NFLPA is not now a union.

All these legal setbacks could give the NFL an excuse to pull the plug on expansion.

But now that the NFL has started the process, it would be a public-relations disaster to stop it.

The critical free-agency trial isn't going to start until Feb. 17, and the NFL is committed to cutting the expansion list to the final candidates by next March.

Since the trial isn't likely to be over by then, it would difficult for the NFL to make a list of final candidates and delay expansion -- although the NFL has done stranger things. Remember, this is a league that allowed Carroll Rosenbloom to trade the Baltimore Colts to Robert Irsay for the Los Angeles Rams.

But if the timetable means the NFL is serious about naming two teams by fall 1992, the next question is whether Baltimore is going to get one of them.

Assuming that it comes down to a battle between Baltimore and St. Louis for the unofficial "old city" team, much will depend on whether Baltimore can put together a deal to beat the Busch brewery money.

St. Louis doesn't have the football history that Baltimore does -- it has sold only 30,000 tickets for an exhibition game scheduled next month -- but it has the backing of Anheuser-Busch.

As baseball expansion showed, the owners are looking for the best financial package. They don't care about presentations. St. Petersburg, Fla., had a nifty presentation and a new stadium and lost to Miami's financial clout.

Herbert J. Belgrad, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority, remains confident Baltimore can put together a winning package. He already has written the NFL asking for the application.

Baltimore fell short when it tried to get an NHL expansion team more than two decades ago. It can't afford to do that again.

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The NFL has hired a New York consulting firm, KRC, to meet with players and employees of various teams to get input from them.

Sounds harmless enough, right?

Not exactly. It has led to the latest dispute between the owners and the players.

The NFLPA calls it "insulting and patronizing" for the NFL to conduct these interviews and says it's designed to find teams where Harold Henderson, the new director of labor relations for the league, would find the warmest reception. Henderson is planning to visit several teams this season.

The NFL says "there's nothing sinister about it" and that it's just designed to gauge the feelings of the players and other employees on various issues.

The two sides also disagree on the announcement that there'll be no developmental squads this year. The owners say that Chip Yablonski, attorney for the players, made "exorbitant" demands.

Yablonski said his demands were only to increase the pay from $3,000 a week to $3,200. He calls it "chump change." He also said the owners never responded to his letter of June 14.

It would be difficult to get these two sides to agree that the sun sets in the West.

Meanwhile, it's uncertain whether the developmental squad really is gone. The owners announced last year that they were discontinuing the squads, and then made a deal with Yablonski to bring them back.

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At the start of training camp, George Young, general manager of the New York Giants, laughed at the suggestion that he was at the pinnacle of his career after winning the Executive of the Year award three times and building a pair of Super Bowl champions.

Although he's a history buff, he didn't want to reflect on his career. "I'm just trying to stay employed," he said.

It didn't take Young long to prove you're never on top in the NFL. In the first week of camp, he was lambasted by the New York media for cutting Mark Bavaro and hiring Zeke Mowatt, one of the alleged ringleaders in the Lisa Olson incident in New England last year.

Young didn't relish cutting Bavaro. "It's a sad day. He's been a wonderful player. It isn't easy. I don't like to do a lot of things I have to do," he said.

Of the Mowatt signing, he said that the tight end was a "good soldier" for the team before he left on Plan B.

"It's hard to be judgmental about transpired in New England," he said.

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