NFL vs. rubes: The game plan was extortion

MICHAEL OLESKER

October 28, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

It should have been a night when fathers dug old footballs out of the closet and tossed them to their sons. It should have been old men telling the kids about Unitas throwing long to Moore in the closing seconds of some frigid afternoon, and the kids with big eyes saying, "Yeah, Pop, but they got this quarterback down at Maryland now who can really throw the ball, and if the Bombers could draft him in a coupla years then. . . ."

Bombers, right.

It should have been a night for husbands and wives who spent one autumn following another in the upper deck, remembering Gino and Big Daddy and Donovan converging at the quarterback, and the kids telling them, "Could we get some new season tickets for the Bombers? Could we all go?"

Season tickets, sure.

It should have been a night for William Donald Schaefer to gain a sense of redemption. On that snowy night in March nine years ago, he was all alone by the radio and heard the moving vans head for Indianapolis. He has never gotten over it. And Tuesday in Chicago, when he finally had his chance to reach the hearts of the men who run the National Football League, he found eloquence coming out of his mouth and the sound of throaty roars coming all the way from a new ballpark in South Baltimore.

New ballpark, right.

This morning we find ourselves cloaked in our naivete. Don't bank on the glory days, we were told, if you really want an expansion team. And so we wrote off our own past. Forget the moral debt pro football owes us for the thievery of Irsay, we were told, and so we pushed aside the moral debt.

This is strictly about money, they said, and so we showed them our money. We arranged for a stadium, and we put together owners, and the owners fronted money to the league, and the fans bought all these season tickets for a ballclub to be named later, and meanwhile the league said, put together an exhibition game.

And so we staged this exhibition game that nobody wanted but everyone embraced, which meant the spending of more money and more emotions, and the thing we never knew was the discovery of Tuesday night: This was never about expansion at all. It was about extortion.

A community with its heart on the line has been played for suckers by as cynical a group of con men as ever spotted a bunch of rubes. Remember when Jacksonville wanted to drop out of the expansion bidding? No, no, the NFL encouraged them, hang in there.

A pattern begins to form. Remember when Charlotte's finances were stretched to the breaking point, but they stretched them some more? Remember the St. Louis group falling apart, and so they began scrambling for the big-money guys to come in at the last second?

It was a magnificent con job played by the NFL on everybody else. Jacksonville didn't have a shot, but the NFL wanted them to stay in the chase to maintain the level of municipal drooling. Charlotte sold its soul to the bankers, without knowing they could have scored with a lesser deal, so much does the NFL covet their geography. St. Louis? Their location and their TV market cinch it, and Tuesday night was the proof.

The Baltimore people wowed the NFL, and it never mattered. St. Louis stumbled all over the place, and it didn't matter. The fix was already in, which we'll see next month. The original game ended with Baltimore several touchdowns ahead, so the NFL called for overtime.

Here's how bad it got: Several days ago, swallowing every sense of bitterness and revulsion everybody feels about this slob, Governor Schaefer called Robert Irsay in Indianapolis. Just to smooth the waters. Just to express hope he wouldn't hold any old grudges at voting time.

And now, with Schaefer ready to leave for Chicago, he told The Sun's Sandy Banisky about the encouraging conversation he had with the man who'd put Baltimore in this humiliating position.

"He called me Don," Schaefer declared.

"And what did you call him?" Banisky asked.

"Mr. Irsay," said the governor of Maryland.

Enough with the groveling. Enough with the false hopes, and enough with the con games, too. This charade will play itself out next month, and then we will wonder about seducing some other city's team to play its games here. But that's a morality tale for another day.

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