Antitrust suit is leverage to get deal done

January 19, 1996|By JOHN EISENBERG

Let's see, Cleveland sues us, we sue the NFL, what's left? Is there any reason for the NFL to sue Cleveland? That would complete the circle, wouldn't it?

Ah, but why should the NFL bother? Cleveland's $300 million lawsuit against the Maryland Stadium Authority won't make it to court, just as the MSA's $36 million antitrust suit filed against the NFL yesterday won't make it to court, either.

The suits are real enough, but inherently fraudulent. Nobody wants the money for which they're asking.

They just want a football team.

And filing a lawsuit is a way to make it happen faster. Or at least try to make it happen faster.

John Moag called yesterday's suit against the NFL "a peremptory strike," which is putting it a little dramatically. It's really more of a defensive measure. He's just protecting himself.

Moag is going to get what he wants, see. The Browns are coming. That they'll be playing at Memorial Stadium next season became evident at the owners' meetings in Atlanta.

But Moag isn't doing his job unless he does everything he can do to make sure the move does happen. And putting the heat on the owners with a lawsuit is a way of manufacturing leverage.

He is just making sure that the owners don't forget to vote on the move at the special meeting they've called for early February.

Call it a $36 million reminder.

It's sick that the world has come to that, but is anyone surprised at this point? This is the '90s. Suing is in.

And let's face it, it makes a lot of sense as a method of intimidation when you're suing the NFL, which wins in court about as often as Hamilton Burger beat Perry Mason.

The NFL owners would almost rather do anything than go to court. Even cheer for Jerry Jones in the Super Bowl.

Nah.

Anyway, there's always the chance that the NFL owners will get mad at Moag for suing them and get more serious about trying to prevent the Browns from coming. But that's not going to happen. As Cleveland's interests learned at the Atlanta meetings, the owners simply aren't going to put the screws to their buddy Art Modell. Regardless of the fallout. And no matter how many prayer vigils the mayor holds.

No, this is a done deal. The owners have scheduled a meeting for Feb. 8-9, which is three days before the court case in Cleveland is scheduled to begin. The timing is perfect for a deal, made either at those meetings or before.

No one knows whether the deal will entail the Browns' name and colors remaining in Cleveland, or another team moving to Cleveland, or what. But one thing is certain: Part of the deal will be that the NFL approves Modell's move to Baltimore.

It comes down to this: The other owners simply aren't going to buy the plan for renovating Cleveland Stadium as a legitimate dTC option. Not when half of them are trying to get new stadium

deals at home.

End of story.

If we can see it coming, Moag surely can. So, why go ahead with yesterday's lawsuit?

To make sure the owners don't bow to the enormous public pressure in this case and somehow forget to vote and finish the deal.

And to make sure that Moag has done his job and employed every conceivable weapon available to him.

Nor does it hurt, as a procedural matter, to establish grounds in a Baltimore federal court. Not that the case will make it there.

There surely are emotional factors at work for Moag, too. In return for scoring the triumph of his career and stealing the Browns, he has taken a public relations pounding, been second-guessed and endured speculation that the deal would fall through. You know it had to feel good for him to put down the hammer with this lawsuit yesterday after watching the political winds turn so dramatically in his favor in Atlanta.

"Our patience has worn thin," he said.

It was the sound of a man on the verge of a done deal, making sure it does get done.

Basically, his lawsuit is no different than the one Cleveland filed with so much hullabaloo. Cleveland didn't really want Modell back through the 1998 season with a team stripped bare. It did want to annoy Modell, but there was no long-term gain in that. What Cleveland really wants is another team and Modell's name and colors back, and filing a lawsuit was a way of helping it get what it wants.

By manufacturing leverage.

Moag is just doing the same thing.

Doing his best to make sure he gets what he wants: the return of NFL football to Baltimore.

At which point, we can only hope, court dockets will clear and this vague and miserable business will come to an end.

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