Almost forgotten -- and it shouldn't be -- in the National Football League expansion process is the city of Oakland, which took an unfair pounding when the team that provided it a special identity took helmets, shoulder pads and wallets to a place in the sun called Los Angeles. A serious reaction resulted in Baltimore and St. Louis. They became losers, too.
The NFL wanted to prevent the transfer of an important franchise from Oakland. The lesson learned, the hard-way, is cold-hearted greed, and not a community's love of a team, is more of an essential consideration. The league went to the legal mat with Al Davis, the managing general partner, in an effort to block the defection but lost trying to ascertain the right, as written in its own constitution and bylaws, to control the location of teams.
Had the NFL won what it set out to do, to keep the Raiders in Oakland, it would have saved the loss and pain later experienced in Baltimore and St. Louis when "their" clubs left home. So the court verdict meant, in toto, that not one but three franchises bolted the ranks.
The NFL spent approximately $100 million in court costs and payment of the lawsuit it lost while trying to keep the Raiders from moving to Los Angeles. The gates thus were opened for subsequent withdrawals, the Colts from Baltimore to Indianapolis 1984 and the Cardinals from St. Louis to Phoenix in 1988.
Oakland took it on the chin despite the fact NFL club owners voted 23 to 0, with five abstaining, against the proposal put forth by Al Davis, the Raiders' managing general partner. The league, at massive expense, couldn't stop the shift. Then came the Baltimore loss, where a team that had been in business 35 years put itself on moving vans and headed to a new address.
No vote was taken. Owner Bob Irsay didn't request permission. He waited until the cover of nightfall on March 27, 1984 and got out of town. Davis' court victory meant Irsay had no legal entanglements. Then came St. Louis, where Cardinals' owner Bill Bidwell asked for approval, went through the new set of regulations the league established for transfer of a team and got the other owners to give the green light.
Now Oakland, Baltimore and St. Louis are endeavoring to get teams in the expansion process. It needs to be pointed out that Oakland and Baltimore deserve preferential treatment for no other reason than they were both plundered through no fault of their own. Baltimore didn't even have the advantage of going to court or appearing before the league to protect itself.
With St. Louis, the story is entirely different. Why? Because the owners officially sanctioned the move -- which didn't happen in the case of Oakland and Baltimore. Now, most of those same owners will be the ones asked to grant St. Louis an expansion club for a projected start-up date of 1994.
Won't many of those same owners be asking themselves why four years ago they were asked to let a team withdraw from St. Louis and now are being polled to install another team in the same city. By way of contrast, Oakland and Baltimore were damaged by different circumstances. Especially Baltimore. It had neither the chance for an ownership vote or a "day in court".
This creates a certain sympathy, not only in Baltimore but around the country, for a city that was blatantly violated and now stands in line, ever-patiently, with a group of 10 applicants waiting on expansion. But where is Oakland, other than being somewhat laid-back in the expansion effort? It needs to be emphasized that Oakland posted 12 seasons of consecutive sellouts, 113 games in all, before Davis, in a cut-and-run action, bolted for Los Angeles.
Valerie Covarnubias, who is helping to plan the Oakland presentation, offers strong reasons for such consideration. "We have the fourth largest population, within a distance of 70 miles, in the entire nation," she says. "In another important area, per capita income, we lead all possible expansion cities."
As for ownership possibilities, she insists one is in place even though the names of the investors have not been revealed. "That will come at a later date. Just like our slogan, 'The Fever Never Left', tells you. Oakland, factually, has this immense record of support for the Raiders. We are banking on that, plus the demographics."
What the league decides to do with expansion is a guessing game. Ethically, morally, traditionally, financially and, in all other essential ways, Oakland and Baltimore deserve first consideration because of what the record shows.