Do-nothing Tagliabue a help this time

November 14, 1995|By Ken Rosenthal

He was our worst enemy. Now, he's our best friend.

CPaul Tagliabue hasn't changed. It's just that his lack of vision as TC NFL commissioner suddenly is working to Baltimore's advantage.

Think Pete Rozelle would have rolled over like this? No chance.

Rozelle would have fought the Browns' move to Baltimore. Actually, he never would have even faced the problem, because he would have put an expansion team in Baltimore in the first place.

A strong commissioner addresses issues like this before they reach the crisis stage. A strong commissioner, faced with howling fans and increasingly restless owners, takes action.

But Tagliabue won't fight.

He wouldn't fight Jack Kent Cooke when the Redskins opposed a team in Baltimore. And he won't fight Art Modell, even though the NFL could make a strong case that the Browns belong in Cleveland.

The NFL set guidelines for relocation after Raiders owner Al Davis won a case in 1983 allowing him to move the team to Los Angeles. But the league isn't even trying to enforce those rules now.

Perhaps Tagliabue figures he can't stop the Browns after allowing the Raiders and Rams to move out of Los Angeles.

Or, perhaps the lawyer in him fears losing to Modell and Baltimore in court after unsuccessfully arguing the Davis case for the NFL.

Whatever, the Browns' proposed move is the most unsettling in sports since the Brooklyn Dodgers headed to Los Angeles in 1958.

Never has a team averaging crowds of 70,000 attempted this. Modell is getting vilified from coast to coast. If ever there was a time for Tagliabue to take a stand, this is it.

But what is our new best friend doing?

Bless his heart, nothing.

His league soon might have teams in Jacksonville, Fla., Nashville, Tenn., and Gary, Ind., but none in Los Angeles, Houston or Chicago, and he's doing nothing.

The crazy part is, Tagliabue should understand the trauma of a franchise shift as well as anyone. He grew up in Jersey City, N.J., rooting for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

In 1990, he told the Chicago Tribune that he was so devastated by the Dodgers' move to Los Angeles, "I really have never been a baseball fan since."

Browns tradition?

Tagliabue has a keen sense of that, too.

"My early interest in pro football involved the Giants-Browns rivalry," he told the New York Times in 1989. "Charlie Connerly, Kyle Rote, Otto Graham, Marion Motley."

If you're Cleveland, that's exactly what you'd want to hear from the NFL commissioner.

Unless, of course, he was a hypocrite.

Tagliabue yesterday traveled to Washington for separate meetings with the two U.S. Senators from Ohio.

Asked if there would be a happy ending for Browns fans, Tagliabue said, "I hope so."

It's his usual wimp-speak.

And it means Baltimore is in.

A good thing, too, because it's frightening to imagine what might happen if Tagliabue actually had influence over the owners, and decided to lobby for Cleveland.

The judge in the Davis case ruled that leagues had the right to control franchise movement -- provided it was for legitimate business reasons, and not to prevent competition in violation of antitrust laws.

So, why not enforce the guidelines for relocation?

Because they're too vague.

Why are they too vague?

Because if they were clear-cut, then communities could use them against the NFL in court, demanding the league abide by its own rules.

Oops. Couldn't have that.

A lack of fan support, financial distress -- these are the kind of criteria that must be met for the NFL to approve a move.

The Browns certainly don't suffer from a lack of fan support. And though Modell insists otherwise, not all of the owners are convinced he's in financial distress.

Modell said last week that he has lost $21 million the past two years. It's unclear what method of accounting he's using, but New York Giants owner Wellington Mara said the figure was "hard to comprehend."

NFL owners each will receive almost $40 million in national television revenue this season. That money is used largely to cover player salaries. After expenses, all other revenue -- ticket sales, concessions, parking, licensing -- should be profit.

"I think he's always had an extremely high in-house overhead," Mara told the New York Daily News. "He has a lot of employees, and all are extremely well-paid. He's had off-the-field expenses equaled by few. He was driven just by this tremendous desire to get in the Super Bowl."

If that's true, then Modell might be a poor businessman.

Under the NFL guidelines, that doesn't give him the right to move.

"I asked him if moving was going to solve his problems. He said it was the only way possible to do it," Mara said. "I said, 'If that's what you have to do, you know best. Best of luck, and I hope to support you.' I was surprised, and dismayed."

Modell has said he has "no choice" but to leave Cleveland, but that's not exactly true. He has a choice -- he can sell the team. But he's more interested in protecting his children's inheritance than Cleveland's football tradition -- and that, of course, is his prerogative.

Still, what would happen if Rozelle were still in charge? The Browns' move must be approved by three-fourths of the league's ownership. Rozelle might have argued that a "yes" vote would send a frightening message to each owner's fans.

He also might have recognized the public-relations value of a court fight. The NFL probably would lose -- Baltimore's own case is rather good -- but so what? Tagliabue would be a hero everywhere but in Baltimore, if he'd just take a stand.

Fear not, fair citizens.

He won't fight.

He's scared to fight.

B6 He was our worst enemy. Now, he's our best friend.

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