State sues the NFL for $36 million Delay in vote on Browns' move prompts action

Antitrust suit protects Md.

League sets date for vote, calls timing of suit 'odd'

January 19, 1996|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Tom Waldron contributed to this article.

ATLANTA -- While the NFL is edging toward approving the move of the Browns to Baltimore in a few weeks, Maryland officials yesterday sued the league for $36 million.

The NFL initially had scheduled this week's meetings here to vote on the Browns' application to move from Cleveland, but league officials and team owners said they needed more time to consider the issue. Many owners have indicated that they expect the move to be approved, and they set another meeting for Feb. 8 and 9 at which a vote is expected.

But that wasn't fast enough for Maryland officials, who said that the delay would drive up financing costs for a stadium and that it was part of a pattern by the league over the past 12 years of keeping a team out of Baltimore illegally. If the NFL loses, it would pay three times the $36 million under federal antitrust law.

Maryland Stadium Authority Chairman John Moag described the filing in U.S. District Court in Baltimore as a pre-emptive strike, one that heads off a lawsuit by the league and ensures that the case would be heard before a judge in Maryland.

"The lawsuit is filed to protect the citizens and fans of Maryland," Mr. Moag said at a news conference here hours after NFL owners and officials adjourned two days of meetings.

Mr. Moag, who negotiated the Oct. 27 agreement for the Browns to move to Baltimore, said he was disappointed that the league has not voted on the issue.

"It has been three months since the agreement was signed, and nothing has happened," Mr. Moag said.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening said the lawsuit was necessary "to ensure that the Browns come to Maryland."

"We are suing to force the NFL to act because we have a legally binding contract with the Browns," the governor said. "Throughout this country, courts have ruled that the NFL cannot stop team relocations. This is a clear violation of antitrust law, and I'm sure we will be successful in bringing the team to Maryland."

In essence, the case, which Mr. Moag said could be dropped if the league approves the move Feb. 8, alleges that the league is seeking to enforce rules that are inherently illegal. The league's bylaws require the approval of three-quarters of the team owners before a franchise can move. The bylaws once granted exclusive territories to franchises, a section that since has been deleted but that the state mentions in its lawsuit to establish a pattern of antitrust activity.

"By asserting their authority to approve the relocation by a vote to be held at a later date, defendants have indicated their intent to enforce their illegal agreements," the suit says.

The suit also alleges that the league illegally thwarted a move of the New England Patriots to Baltimore in 1992 and that the league bypassed the city's expansion application days after the Washington Redskins announced an intention to build a stadium in Laurel, 15 miles south of Baltimore.

Such actions amounted to an illegal monopolization of the market for the Redskins, denying Baltimore the benefits of a team and denying consumers the lower ticket prices that competing teams could provide, the suit alleges.

"The timing of the suit is odd," said NFL spokesman Joe Browne. "We hope that today's suit does not delay the already planned vote."

Mr. Moag said he does not think the league will delay the vote as a result of the suit.

"I'm not frankly worried about the league's reaction. I'm worried about making sure our citizens and fans are protected," Mr. Moag said.

"This is a tactical move," said Martin A. Greenberg, director of the National Sports Law Institute of Marquette University Law School and an expert on sports law who is not involved in the case.

"Certainly from a strategic standpoint, this moves the process along and reminds the league that there are these other issues hanging out there," Mr. Greenberg said.

Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. called the lawsuit "legal gamesmanship" designed to prod a quick vote.

"The Stadium Authority would like a decision as quickly as possible," Mr. Miller said. "They feel the only way a decision will be coming quickly is if the owners' feet are held to the fire."

Maryland's $36 million lawsuit asks for a court order preventing the NFL from interfering with the Browns' move to Baltimore and to pay the state for the costs of the case and the more than $30 million in additional interest the state may have to pay if it is delayed in selling bonds on the stadium project, as well as fines specified by Maryland antitrust laws.

Under federal antitrust law, losers pay three times the losses their illegal behavior costs -- meaning the NFL could be facing more than $100 million in liabilities to Maryland.

Listed as defendants are the league and all of its teams other than the Browns.

The Browns declined to comment. Mr. Moag said he consulted with team owner Art Modell before filing the suit but did not ask the team to join the action.

"Mr. Modell understands why we have to do this," Mr. Moag said.

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