The NFL ball is still in play

December 06, 1993

No one needs to tell Gov. William Donald Schaefer or Herbert J. Belgrad to deal warily with anyone in the National Football League these days. The governor and Mr. Belgrad, point man in Maryland's quest for an NFL franchise, tried to deal honorably with the league and got a dose of Durocher's Law: nice guys finish last. So no more nice guy.

This doesn't mean they should turn away legitimate inquiries about moving an existing franchise here. There are one or two that might have good cause to move, perhaps even good enough to convince other owners to approve a shift. If not, they might be willing to defy their appointed commissar, Paul Tagliabue, and test his devious, authoritarian style in court.

There are two dangers. One is that an owner will adopt the familiar, tawdry NFL tactic of playing one city against another. The two cities could both be supplicants, or one could be a club used against the host city to extort a better deal. Baltimore has had enough of that. The other problem is the obvious distaste league commissioner Tagliabue has for Baltimore. Would he hypocritically manipulate the process again?

In one sense the Maryland officials are in a better position than they have been in the past. There is a thoroughly defined package already disclosed in full detail to NFL owners. It is an excellent one that has already caught the eyes of a couple of owners with wanderlust. It was at least as good as Charlotte's and better than Jacksonville's. So the unseemly haggling that has characterized other attempts at franchise shifts should not be necessary now. Maryland has a first-class offer on the table. If anyone is interested, let him (or her) say so. Unambiguously.

All along Messrs. Schaefer and Belgrad have said they would deal with a potential owner only if it were clear the team would definitely move somewhere. They negotiated unsuccessfully with Bill Bidwell, and he eventually did move, but to Phoenix. That should continue to be the policy: to maintain the local effort's integrity and this community's self-respect.

To strengthen their hands, the businesses and fans who put down deposits on seats in the projected stadium at Camden Yards should leave the money there a while longer. It needs to be clear to potential owners that the crass behavior of all but a handful in the NFL has not dampened public ardor here for major league football. Perhaps a couple more owners will see clearly what a great sports town this is, despite the smoke screen laid down from NFL headquarters.

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