Moag thwarts final insult from NFL

February 09, 1996|By KEN ROSENTHAL

CHICAGO -- It's over, we're getting a team, but right to the end, the NFL tried to stick it to us. As late as yesterday, league officials wanted Baltimore to wait for an expansion team so the Browns could remain in Cleveland.

John Moag just said no.

"It didn't get heated," said Moag, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority, "but I was pretty adamant that the team would play in Baltimore, that we weren't going to wait."

Moag was leaning against a wall outside a ballroom at the O'Hare Hilton last night, looking tired and worn while Cleveland Mayor Michael R. White stood at a podium inside, proclaiming victory for his city.

The NFL owners today are expected to approve a tentative agreement reached between the league, Cleveland and Browns owner Art Modell. But the three-month battle drained Moag, just as the 12-year wait drained our city.

An expansion team in 1998.

The gall of these people.

The absolute nerve.

Moag didn't go into details, but evidently the Browns would have played at Ohio State in Columbus while Baltimore would have been promised an existing or expansion team once its new stadium was completed.

The idea seemed totally impractical -- the NFL couldn't force Modell to sell the Browns, or put the team into a trust -- but since when did that ever stop commissioner Paul Tagliabue & Co.?

Right to the end, the NFL kept pushing. But for once, Baltimore had leverage. The $36 million antitrust lawsuit it filed against the NFL.

The threat of blocking three stadiums -- two in Maryland and one in Cleveland -- if we didn't get a team.

What a fitting final chapter to this bizarre, twisting saga. Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke apparently thwarted Maryland's return to the NFL during expansion. Now it turns out we might not have accomplished this without him.

Granted, no one in Maryland likes the idea of contributing $273 million in public funds to the construction of two football stadiums. But the fact is, the linkage between the Browns' and Redskins' stadiums helped seal this deal.

Hate to admit it, but maybe buying off Cooke with $73 million for roads and infrastructure was worth it, after all.

Then again, an antitrust lawsuit might have been more interesting than the Browns will be in the next few years. Don Shula? If Modell is so hung up on the past, he can forsake his own PSL palace and stay at Memorial Stadium forever.

Not likely.

Whatever, at least football is back -- real football, not the CFL variety.

Forget about the Colts. Forget about expansion. Forget about everything. At last, it is time to move forward.

Moag struck a tone of reconciliation last night -- "The commissioner badly wanted to make this work. He did make it work."

But heaven knows what went on behind closed doors yesterday, in the name of "negotiation."

They can all stick it now -- the Browns are coming. No one is going to stop them, not even those crusading state politicians who love their newfound exposure. All those stadium opponents in the legislature, kindly step aside.

"I think the legislature is coming on board," Moag said. "For the first time since the announcement we have some very positive news. The people now have to understand we are getting football. All the worry warts -- including people like myself -- can now realize this is for real."

For better, and for worse.

We know how the NFL is going to spin this -- the fans won, with football returning to both Baltimore and Cleveland. The truth, of course, is that the fans lost, at least compared to what they had, or should have had before.

Under the agreement, Cleveland will keep the Browns name and colors, and the NFL will contribute $28 million to $48 million for the construction of a new stadium, to be repaid by the city's new franchise.

Not a bad job by Mayor White -- Cleveland stands to gain a maximum of $60 million, including approximately $12 million in damages from Modell. Still, the city will go three years without football. And when it returns, it will be at a much higher price.

There's the $175 million in public funds that will go toward the new stadium -- a stadium that will include all the state-of-the-art enticements, luxury boxes, premium seating and PSLs.

White said the PSL money would be put toward construction, but the new owner still might need to raise money to pay off his stadium debt.

Good luck.

In Baltimore, we're getting football, without the wait. But it's a hollow triumph, because we should have had an expansion team this season, without the PSLs.

As San Diego Chargers owner Alex Spanos put it, "They could have had the Colts a lot cheaper if they had hung onto them, couldn't they?"

Even Moag said, "I wish we could have worked out this kind of deal 12 years ago." But the fact is, we couldn't.

We had to play dirty.

We had to commit millions.

And in the end, when the NFL again tried to stick it to us, we had to tell them enough is enough.

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