Two-minute drill in expansion game requires a new play

John Steadman

November 12, 1993|By John Steadman

Through most of its affluent years, say from 1960 until the present, there has never been a smoother running public relations machine than the National Football League. Now it's in troubled waters, a situation brought on by what is perceived in some places as a bias against Baltimore's getting an expansion franchise.

Baltimore, ignoring provincialism, is the adopted choice of mainstream America, much the way it used to be said that "nobody likes Eisenhower but the people." The nation's football fans, if they count, want the NFL to favor Baltimore.

Of importance to Baltimore, in what has been an ever-changing story, is the renewed possibility that Alfred Lerner, who five years ago was reported as being interested as a Baltimore owner, will come to the fore and take command. It could be a vital development.

Meanwhile, the NFL is feeling the heat because of the criticism it's getting from all sides over the way it has so far handled expansion. The NFL wizards in PR (which used to stand for Pete Rozelle, as well as public relations) are still the same, so the bad reaction the NFL is receiving can directly be attributed to how some team owners and league officials have conducted the process.

It's a situation that ironically may play in Baltimore's favor. Human nature being what it is, the criticism the NFL is getting from all sides, including newspapers and magazines, is going to give reason for pause before a second city is picked.

Several club owners told this reporter that taking in three more teams is more a possibility than it was two weeks ago but, in truth, it's still "down the road."

How much it would be accelerated, if it happens, isn't known. One owner, at the Oct. 26 meeting in Chicago, said the possibility of more clubs being added was discussed but only informally. At this time, though, it doesn't seem likely the NFL is going to reverse itself and add more than one expansion team to go along with Charlotte.

Unless the league says "two now and two more later," naming the selections and designating the years, then it doesn't carry much comfort for a city such as Baltimore to realize another expansion exercise might come earlier than was anticipated.

Baltimore is a city that has been waiting since 1984 and refused to bring a lawsuit against the NFL after Bob Irsay took the Colts and defected for Indianapolis. That should count for something.

Baltimore's two potential ownership groups failed to impress the jury of NFL owners. It was much like a fraternity or honor society passing judgment on a candidate. So if the league likes Baltimore, then why doesn't it deal directly with the city and put the owners in place later? The expansion outfits won't kick off until 1995. There is time to decide.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer realizes, as do others, that a single owner of stature, similar to Bob Tisch, who pulled out of Baltimore and bought half-interest in the New York Giants for $85 million, gets the NFL's attention. But those types are difficult to find.

The profile of such an owner isn't difficult to evaluate. He must be a combination Art Modell/Lamar Hunt, the type of high-profile person endowed with integrity, wealth and leadership.

Even a mind reader would draw a blank in an effort to determine Schaefer's game plan. He's keeping his own counsel. Even if you had camped out in the governor's office disguised as a picture on the wall, or a floor lamp, it would be difficult to get an accurate read on his strategy.

The names on the preferential list are Lerner and Jeffrey Lurie, but not together. Lerner is a 5 percent owner of the Cleveland Browns, a man who once worked in Baltimore selling furniture. The scouting report by a friend who worked with him is "tough, decent and capable of dealing with difficult situations."

He would be ideal but of course his presence, although important, wouldn't guarantee Baltimore a franchise, only enhance its chances.

Too much of an effort has been made by the Maryland Stadium Authority and the expansion co-chairmen, Matt DeVito and Herbert Belgrad, not to pull out all stops as they deal with Monday's noon deadline regarding additional ownership groups. Their enormous expenditure in time and talent as non-paid volunteers may not be rewarded with a team, but it should be.

They have a responsibility, along with Schaefer, to do one thing: Put Baltimore in its best position possible to get an expansion franchise. Forget personalities. Ignore the controversy. Do what's best for Baltimore. It's the only premise, their most important charge.

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