Cleveland's latest salvo could backfire with NFL

January 13, 1996|By Ken Rosenthal

Eleven days ago, Maryland Stadium Authority chairman John Moag said that he expected to "move into a settlement mode pretty quickly." Yesterday, Cleveland filed another lawsuit asking for at least $300 million in damages.

Sure doesn't sound like Mayor Michael White is trying to make nice.

If it's any comfort, the NFL is still the biggest culprit in this tale of Gypsies, tramps and thieves.

The NFL started all the trouble by refusing to expand into Baltimore. And now the NFL might get sued, no matter how its stupid owners vote Wednesday in Atlanta.

Which means they won't vote.

Which means Browns owner Art Modell must settle with Cleveland before a Feb. 12 court date.

Which means this all better straighten out in less than a month, or the Browns might not play in Baltimore next season.

The odds still are good that they will, that Cleveland's latest lawsuit will amount to nothing, that yesterday will be remembered as the final ugly exchange before the two sides reached a settlement.

But who knows?

Moag issued a two-page statement in response to the lawsuit, and Gov. Parris N. Glendening issued a statement of his own. Leverage and more leverage, posturing and more posturing. The question is, how will this resolve?

Moag and Glendening no longer can claim they've anticipated each counter-strike. They didn't anticipate the national uproar over the Browns' move. And they didn't anticipate the depth of Cleveland's anger, as embodied by White.

Logically, White needs to settle. Logically, he needs to find a new team. Logically, he needs to drop the lawsuit, because even if he wins and forces the Browns to stay, Cleveland's NFL future will be severely damaged.

That's how Moag sees it. That's how any rational person would see it. But since when did logic enter into this? Logically, the Browns shouldn't be leaving Cleveland. Maybe White is so desperate, he's committing hara-kiri with the NFL. Or maybe he's truly dangerous, and believes his cause is just.

Actually, he's a politician.

Glendening said in his statement that White is running for re-election, as if political motives would never enter his own thinking. In fact, the next mayoral election in Cleveland isn't until November 1997. And if White is merely seeking another term, why doesn't he concentrate his efforts on getting Cleveland another team?

"I don't get it," Moag said. "His strategy has been fairly good to date, I guess. But I think he made a real strategic error here. It sets him back with the owners. They don't have much patience for this kind of stuff.

"It's an annoyance for us. I think it tends to hurt him a lot more."

Indeed, the NFL probably sees White as just as big a nuisance as Baltimore was after losing the Colts. Yet, White continues his press to the maximum. He's even trying to intimidate the league, knowing that Modell has promised to gut the Browns if forced to stay in Cleveland.

"How would you like to be an NFL team coming to Cleveland, coming to play a stripped-down team with 70,000 seats, and there are only 10,000 people there?" White asked. "Not only are you coming to a place that's empty, you're getting 40 percent of [the gate], which isn't much."

The NFL will hate such talk.

But maybe the NFL is scared.

Maybe White wants the league to assure Cleveland of a new team, while securing the Browns' name, colors and some ungodly settlement from Modell. The city is going after Modell's permanent seat license revenue in its lawsuit. Not the PSLs! That money is sacred. This must be hardball.

Again, it could all be resolved tomorrow, and the Browns could be playing at Memorial Stadium next season, rather than at Camden Yards in 1998. The last thing any of the principals wants is to testify in court. White doesn't want the truth out, and neither does Modell. They already look bad enough.

No one's hands are clean, not Baltimore's, not Cleveland's, not the NFL's.

Moag said yesterday that "Maryland did not steal the Browns, Mayor White lost them." Please. There is no moral high ground, and Moag knows it.

In fact, he knows it so well, he offered to meet with Cleveland officials on Dec. 28, to offer "whatever assistance or information the MSA could provide in locating a replacement team for Cleveland . . . something no other city did for Baltimore when it lost the Colts."

That's sort of like offering to help a man find another girlfriend after stealing his wife, and Cleveland naturally refused. Cleveland is playing by its own rules.

Cleveland is risking its NFL future. But Cleveland is going down fighting.

At least that's what appears to be happening.

Frankly, no one can be sure.

Moag said Modell phoned him yesterday after White announced Cleveland was seeking at least $300 million in damages and joked, "I'm good for half of it."

History is on their side -- the NFL has never stopped a team from trying to relocate, and neither has a court of law. But this whole thing is unchartered territory.

A line has been crossed. And no one knows what to anticipate next.

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