Legal route likely to lead Cleveland, NFL to dead end Baltimore, other cities have failed to block team relocations in court

November 06, 1995|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

Clevelanders may be about to learn the cruel lessons of Baltimore, circa 1984: Despite years of support, there is very little anyone can do to prevent a football team from leaving town.

Cities from Oakland, Calif., to Baltimore have tried various legal tactics to keep their teams from moving, but with little success. And the authority of the National Football League has diminished with the abandonment of the Los Angeles market, according to legal experts.

"Cleveland doesn't have much. They are victims of a monopoly exercising monopolistic powers sanctioned by Congress," said Stephen Ross, a law professor and antitrust expert at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

NFL guidelines require the approval of three-quarters of the owners before a team can move, but there is serious question about whether the guidelines can be enforced. And, as Baltimore learned the hard way, a city can't seize a franchise like a highway right-of-way.

The NFL guidelines were inserted into the bylaws after the Raiders won a lawsuit in 1983 allowing the team to move to Oakland. The judge in that case upheld the right of leagues to control franchise movement, but insisted that it be for legitimate business purposes rather than to prevent competition, something prohibited by antitrust laws.

The league insists that the guidelines it drafted, which consider a community's support for a team and its financial distress, meet the judge's standard. Though a case could be made for the Rams and Raiders suffering from low attendance and outdated stadiums, it is harder to make the argument about poor attendance on behalf of the Browns.

"We have rules on relocation that are applied. These rules have not been tested in court, and we are confident that they are reasonable and would comply with the antitrust laws," said NFL spokesman Greg Aiello.

NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue met with and assured Cleveland Mayor Michael R. White yesterday that the move of the team is not a fait accompli and that the city will get a fair hearing, according to Mr. Aiello and a spokeswoman for the mayor.

But Mr. Ross said the guidelines are too vague to serve their purpose. And that is apparently by design: If the rules were clear-cut, then communities could use them against the NFL in court, demanding the league abide by its own rules, Mr. Ross said.

Duke University law professor John Weistart said the NFL's decision to allow the Rams and Raiders to move out of Los Angeles -- the nation's second-largest market -- severely weakened its ability to keep anyone from moving.

"I don't think there is any doubt under antitrust laws that a league has a right to keep a franchise in a market where it can be profitable. The question is whether this league can," Mr. Weistart said.

Baltimore has a few other advantages in such as case: having the Redskins nearby strengthens Baltimore's case that the league is illegally trying to protect one franchise's turf from another; and by naming Baltimore a finalist in expansion, the league has waived any notion the market is unfit.

Mr. Ross said he thinks Cleveland's best hope lies with enforcing leases and other business obligations. The Browns' contracts with Cleveland run through 1998, but contain outs whereby the team would pay the city $200,000 a year through 1998. Other details of the arrangement there were not immediately available.

Other cities, including Baltimore, have tried to exercise their powers of eminent domain, which allow municipalities to seize, with fair compensation, private property for public purposes.

George W. Baker, a Baltimore attorney and former deputy city solicitor, advised the use of these powers when the Colts were threatening to move. But the team, fearing such action, packed up its equipment and left town at night. A judge threw out the case on the grounds that the team was no longer in Baltimore.

"I doubt they can stop it," Mr. Baker said of Cleveland's options.

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