Trial may force NFL to address Baltimore

ON THE NFL

March 26, 1995|By VITO STELLINO

Twenty-three years ago, Georgia Frontiere's sixth husband, Carroll Rosenbloom, traded the Baltimore Colts to Bob Irsay for the Los Angeles Rams, a deal that set into motion the sequence of events that led to the Colts' departure from Baltimore.

Now, things may come full circle.

Frontiere might start a process that could help Baltimore finally get back into the NFL.

Unless there's a last-minute settlement, Frontiere is expected to file a lawsuit this week that will attempt to overturn the league's rejection of the Rams' proposed move to St. Louis. The suit's outcome finally should determine whether the league can stop teams from moving.

The league contends it can block moves because of the guidelines it put in place after the Los Angeles Raiders won a court fight to move from Oakland, Calif. But that theory never has been tested in court.

If the league loses and the owners get stuck with millions of dollars in damages, it's unlikely they would let commissioner Paul Tagliabue try to block another move.

If the threat of league interference is removed, Baltimore's stadium deal is going to look enticing to teams that have stadium problems.

On top of that, the Rams apparently plan to contend at the trial that the league steered them away from Baltimore and suggested they move to St. Louis instead.

Max Blecher, who represented the Los Angeles Coliseum Commission in the Raiders trial, made that charge to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch last week.

"[Rams president John] Shaw started out looking at Baltimore. He was touted off of that [by the league] with at least the implied assurance that if he went to St. Louis, yeah, that would be OK. But it didn't work out that way," Blecher said.

This is not exactly startling news. It long has been rumored in the league that Tagliabue was steering the Rams away from Baltimore, although he denied it last fall.

But if the Rams make the contention in court, it will carry more weight.

Shaw echoed the same theme in an interview with the New York Times last week.

"When people say we have not tried to take the league's interest to heart, that is simply not true," he said. "One of the cities that came after us was Baltimore. We respected the league's 75-mile franchise-radius rule, we respected the Washington Redskins and turned our attention to St. Louis."

Actually, the league no longer is contending that there is a 75-mile-radius rule. But the issue of whether the league has tried to keep a team out of Baltimore apparently would be an issue if there were a trial.

If the league loses a trial, it might be forced to cease and desist from stacking the deck against Baltimore.

The legal battle

The owners may have underestimated Frontiere's resolve to battle them in court. They seemed to think she would sell the team rather than go through a long legal battle.

Art Modell, owner of the Cleveland Browns, said last week, "I like Georgia. I've known her for 30 years. . . . I don't want to see her get hurt in this process. I don't want her to spend two years in litigation at her age. I thought a good option would be, if not immediately [but] over a period of time, to phase in a new owner."

The suggestion that she should sell seems to have irritated Frontiere. "I'll never sell. Never. This is not a question of money. It's pride," she said.

She also suggested she's a victim of sexism. "I'm not one of the boys," she said. "I'm not one that they call and chat with and tell their funny stories. I could never be one of the boys."

Now that Frontiere seems serious about fighting in court, the league is in a difficult position. There were more talks last week, but Shaw is reluctant to boost his last offer of $25 million to settle the dispute.

Now the league could be destined for a court fight that won't be easy to win because there are many inconsistencies in its position.

The NFL was in court 12 years ago trying to keep a second team out of Los Angeles. Now it's trying to keep a second team in Los Angeles. It also approved the move of a team out of St. Louis in 1988 under these same guidelines and now is trying to stop one from coming in. And since negotiations began, the main issue doesn't seem to have been the guidelines, but how much the Rams are willing to pay.

It would have been a lot easier for the NFL to take the Rams' $25 million settlement offer, approve the move and promise Los Angeles an expansion team if it built a stadium.

Good seats available

The expansion Carolina Panthers fear they won't be able to sell out six of their eight home games in their first season at Clemson, which means the local TV blackout won't be lifted for those games.

With only 42,000 of the 76,000 seats at Clemson sold, Panthers president Mike McCormack said last week, "This is a little embarrassing to be possibly blacked out in your home market -- that's something you never want to happen."

The Panthers figure they can sell out their opener and the home game against the San Francisco 49ers, but the other six may not sell out.

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