Cleveland fans due for more rejection


January 21, 1996|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

Cleveland Browns fans found out last November how Baltimore fans felt in 1984 when the Colts left town.

They're about to find out next month how Baltimore fans felt when the city was bypassed for expansion in 1993.

The NFL owners' meeting last week was almost a replay of the expansion process in 1993.

First, there was the polite reception Cleveland officials got when they made their presentation to the owners. Remember how Baltimore officials talked about how well they were received during their expansion presentation?

Then there was the delay. The owners decided not to vote on the issue at the meeting, putting it off until Feb. 8-9. Remember how Carolina got a franchise Oct. 26 and the owners delayed the vote on the second franchise until Nov. 30?

Of course, Baltimore had no chance to get that franchise -- which went to Jacksonville because the owners weren't happy with the St. Louis ownership situation -- just as Cleveland has no chance to keep the Browns at next month's meeting.

Privately, league officials and owners are conceding that there's no way they're going to block the move to Baltimore.

The best Cleveland can hope for is to keep its name and colors if it drops its lease lawsuit. The owners also will promise Cleveland a new team if it builds a stadium.

But Cleveland doesn't need a promise if it builds a stadium. The city would have teams eager to come there.

There were several clues at the meeting that the owners aren't going to try to block Art Modell's move.

The first is how little time they spent at the meeting talking about Cleveland. Most of their time was spent discussing revenue sharing and the extension of the collective bargaining agreement.

The fans may not care about this debate, but it's a major one within the league. Many owners want the high-revenue teams -- particularly Jerry Jones' Dallas Cowboys -- to share money with the low-revenue teams.

Jones is against it, of course, and this debate will show whether he can round up seven other owners to block the move. Jones may have alienated so many of his colleagues that he can't get the necessary votes.

In any case, the owners are far more interested in this issue than they are in where the Browns will play. It affects their bottom line.

The second clue was that commissioner Paul Tagliabue indicated he may not make a recommendation on the Browns' move. He said he may have the finance and stadium committees make it.

Remember how eager Tagliabue was to make the recommendations during expansion? He wanted to take credit for opening the NFL to new markets, but he knows abandoning Cleveland won't be a popular move, so he's not eager to associate himself with it.

The third clue came when Tagliabue started talking about how how fan support isn't the only factor in evaluating moves. He talked about the "priorities given to other community projects."

That was a clear reference to Cleveland's building a baseball stadium, a basketball arena, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and a science museum while bypassing a football stadium.

The owners' delay in voting not only annoyed Baltimore and prompted its lawsuit, but also was unfair to Cleveland fans. It kept their hopes alive when they have no realistic hope of getting the owners to vote to block the move.

Talk about Baltimore's getting an expansion team with Modell instead of the Browns was another signal of false hope for Cleveland. There is no way 23 owners will vote for immediate expansion.

The bottom line for Cleveland is that the price for a franchise is building a stadium. That may not be fair, but when was the NFL ever fair?

Davis speaks out

For entertainment value, Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis stole the show at the owners' meetings.

Davis still is annoyed that Modell is moving after testifying against the Raiders' move from Oakland to Los Angeles in two antitrust trials in 1981 and '82. Modell also consistently opposed franchise moves over the years, including the Rams' move from Los Angeles to St. Louis last year.

Davis could have been justified in saying that Modell had "unclean hands" and that "he was standing up and all of a sudden changing everything he said the last 15 years."

But the phrase "diabolical plot" may have been a bit much, and it was downright hilarious when Davis charged that Modell had inside information on the Baltimore deal because he was a member of the finance committee.

This is the same Baltimore deal the city has been trying to get somebody to take for eight years. Nobody needed inside information.

Rams president John Shaw was more diplomatic when he discussed Modell's criticism of his team's move.

"He probably sees my position better today than he did a year ago," Shaw said.

Stepping back

Now that approval for the Browns' move appears near, it seems likely that Modell will not bring player personnel director Mike Lombardi and coach Bill Belichick to Baltimore.

After four losing seasons in the past five years, Modell is likely to figure the Browns need a fresh start in a new city.

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