Owners leaning toward Modell Wilson, other critics appear in minority

February 07, 1996|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF Staff writer Tanya Jones contributed to this article.

Ralph Wilson, the owner of the Buffalo Bills, can't help laughing when he looks at the current state of the NFL.

"This whole thing has turned into a broad comedy," Wilson said. "Each day I wake up waiting to see who's going to throw the next pie."

The latest pie was thrown by the Seattle Seahawks, who announced last week that they were moving to Los Angeles because of the seismic risk at the Kingdome even though Seattle hasn't had a serious earthquake in 30 years.

Wilson and the rest of the NFL owners will spend the next three days debating franchise shifts and other NFL business, including whether to approve the Cleveland Browns' move to Baltimore. If the thoughts expressed by several owners this week are any indication, the move will be approved.

But there is speculation that the Seahawks' action -- they are the fifth team in the past year to announce a move -- could cause a delay in the Browns' vote.

At an appearance before the House Judiciary Committee yesterday, commissioner Paul Tagliabue ducked questions about whether the Seattle move would affect the Browns' vote.

"It might have an impact on some owners' thinking. It might not on others. But I couldn't speculate until I hear some of the thoughts expressed at the meeting," he said.

Several owners think that in the end, the finance and stadium committees will recommend a yes vote and it will be approved by the 23 owners needed to pass the measure.

Bob Harlan, the president of the Green Bay Packers, said he's made up his mind on the issue and won't be influenced by the recommendation. He said he wouldn't be surprised if the Browns' vote is approved.

"I think that's fair to say [it will pass], judging from the people I've talked to in the last week," Harlan said.

Harlan wouldn't reveal how he'll vote or identify the executives he's talked to. But the Packers may vote no because they're a community-owned team.

Wilson is a definite no vote. He's ready to fight a court battle to stop teams from moving. "Somewhere along the line, I think the league's got to take a stand on something. So far, I haven't seen us take a stand on anything," he said.

But Wilson said he wouldn't be surprised if the Browns' move is approved.

"I've seen that happen before. The committees come out with a unanimous recommendation and the owners go along with the committee," Wilson said.

Wilson won't go along with a yes recommendation, but said, "I'm only one voice in the chorus. I'll say something, but it usually doesn't carry much weight."

Baltimore has three strong points going for it: an antitrust lawsuit that the state will pursue if the Browns don't get NFL approval, the possibility that the Redskins could lose their stadium near Landover if the Baltimore project is derailed and the sympathy Modell gets from other owners who have their own stadium problems.

The $36 million antitrust lawsuit filed Jan. 17 by the Maryland Stadium Authority is the city's biggest weapon. On March 15, 1995, the owners voted 21-3 with six abstentions to reject the Los Angeles Rams' move to St. Louis. Less than a month later, the owners voted 23-6-1 to approve the move after St. Louis threatened the owners with a $2.25 billion suit.

Cincinnati owner Mike Brown said: "That's B as in billion. Maybe some owner can afford to pay his share of that. We can't."

The Redskins, who voted against Baltimore's bid for an expansion team, have told Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening that they will vote in favor of the Browns' move. Although vice president John Kent Cooke declined comment yesterday, the support in the Maryland legislature for $73 million in road improvements for the Redskins' proposed Prince George's County stadium would probably evaporate if the Browns' move is rejected.

Another plus for Modell is that the owners who have stadium problems are likely to back him.

The Houston Oilers, who plan to move to Nashville, have said they'll vote for Modell. The Browns owner also said the Seahawks' Ken Behring has told him he'll back the Browns' move.

The Detroit Lions and the Minnesota Vikings say they have two of the worst leases in the league. Although executives from both teams say they want to hear the recommendation before making a decision, they said they understand Modell's plight.

Vikings president Roger Headrick said, "I think people were quite impressed with his concerns. I am sympathetic to a guy who tried for six or eight years to convince the city of Cleveland he had a need."

Chuck Schmidt, the vice president of the Lions, said, "Teams have to have the ability to compete. If they meet the guidelines, they should be allowed to move."

Modell also seems to have support from different factions within the league.

Wellington Mara, the co-owner of the New York Giants, voted against the Rams' move. He said he thinks the league forfeited the right to stop teams from moving when it allowed the Rams to move.

"I don't see how we can stop anybody from moving," he said.

Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones also figures to be a yes vote. He said during Super Bowl week that he doesn't think the league can stop teams from moving.

The Atlanta Falcons also say they will vote yes.

Tagliabue won't commit himself before the meeting.

"Our challenge in this situation is to be responsive to both groups of fans in some way, respecting the NFL tradition in Cleveland and renewing the NFL tradition in Baltimore," he said yesterday. "How we do that is what we have to decide in the next 72 hours," he said.

One team executive, who didn't want to be identified, noted that Tagliabue has yet to risk a court fight to block a move and isn't likely to start now.

"In the end, he's always folded," the team executive said.

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