Why I gave up on the NFL long ago

December 02, 1993|By Gregory P. Kane

WHEN Baltimore got dissed again by the National Football League Tuesday, here was one Baltimorean who wasn't unhappy. I'd been rooting against an NFL franchise in Baltimore for some time, and I think many Baltimoreans agree with me. Here are some of the reasons:

* NFL football isn't that exciting. Only a couple of teams stand out, and most games have the excitement of a TV test pattern. The most thrilling season of professional football here was 28 years ago. It's been anticlimactic ever since. For those who don't remember, that's the year the Colts became embroiled in a three-team race for the NFL Western Conference title with the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears. It was the year that Johnny Unitas and his backup, Gary Cuozzo, went down with injuries.

Coach Don Shula was forced to go with halfback Tom Matte at quarterback. I will never forget Matte, the plays taped to his wrist, leading the Colts into sudden-death overtime in a playoff for the Western Conference championship with the Packers. The NFL doesn't have football like that these days. Baltimore's fans have been accused of living in the past. There's a reason: That's when the good football was. And it's when professional football in Baltimore was a blue-collar game, not an enterprise pitched at Washington lawyers, skybox owners and people who can afford to drop $200 on a Sunday afternoon.

* NFL football is not the growth sport of the '90s. Professional basketball is. Baltimore fans blew their chance for an NBA franchise by failing to support the perennially excellent Baltimore Bullets of the late '60s and early '70s. One reason Charlotte may have received an NFL franchise is because NFL owners observed how the fans in Charlotte took to the new NBA franchise, which brings me to my next point.

* Its undying passion for football notwithstanding, Baltimore may not be a good sports town. The loss of the Bullets is one example. The city has yet to be a site for even a series of first-round games for the NCAA basketball championship. College basketball is another major sport that has yet to capture the imagination of Baltimore fans. Hartford, Conn., can get the NCAA to schedule first-round games there in its annual tournament. Baltimore, meanwhile, has to settle for indoor soccer and minor-league hockey, and it doesn't support either very well.

* I stopped being a Colts fan long before Robert Irsay skedaddled. It was in 1978, to be exact, when Colts management banished Lydell Mitchell and Raymond Chester for daring to utter truth.

Chester was sent packing to the then-Oakland Raiders for suggesting that Colts quarterback Bert Jones was not as good as his local press clippings had it. Mitchell simply demanded that he be paid top dollar for the excellent back he was. (He had run for 5,487 yards between 1972 and 1977.) He was told that the Colts didn't pay backs the amount of money he was requesting. Or it may have been that the Colts didn't pay blacks the amount of money he was asking. Depends on how carefully you were listening.

But the incident did reveal that Baltimore does not hold its black sports heroes in the same esteem as its white stars. Former Orioles pitcher Jim Palmer, who has a keen eye for such details, pointed out that Mitchell accounted for 70 percent of the Colts offense during the team's successful years in the mid-'70s. But to the local sports media and fans, Bert Jones was "The Franchise."

The Orioles didn't win an American League pennant or World Series until Frank Robinson arrived in 1966. They won four AL pennants and two World Series during Robinson's six years as a player with the team. In 1972, at the age of 36 and his skills clearly declining, Robinson was dispatched to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Compare that to the treatment of Brooks Robinson, who was allowed to remain at third base until cobwebs were growing around him.

John Unitas was sent packing to San Diego in 1973 when he was pushing 40 and near the end of his career. The ensuing uproar was understandable, but compare it to what happened five years earlier, in 1968, when Lenny Moore was told by Colts coaches after 13 excellent seasons, "Lenny, you don't fit into our plans."

Moore was dumped with barely a ripple of protest. "I don't kick it that hard," Lenny told me in an interview on Morgan State University's radio station in 1980. "I had 13 good years."

Lenny Moore doesn't "kick it that hard" because that's the decent kind of human being he is. But given Baltimore's shoddy treatment of black athletes and considering that the NFL player ranks are 65 percent African-American, I can't see any compelling reason to put an NFL franchise here.

Gregory P. Kane is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

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