Owners may regret settlement Precedent-setting deal has legal ramifications

The Nfl Returns To Baltimore

February 10, 1996|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

CHICAGO -- The NFL owners solved their Baltimore-Cleveland problem yesterday, but the way they did it may cause the league headaches in the future.

By passing a resolution guaranteeing Cleveland a team by 1999, by letting Art Modell move without determining whether he passed the league guidelines and by lending Cleveland up to $48 million, the NFL may have set precedents that could come back to haunt the league.

Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis, who's always quick to spot a conspiracy against him by the league, made that point yesterday.

Davis said former team owners such as Victor Kiam will gain ammunition in their legal fights with the NFL because of yesterday's settlement.

Kiam is suing the league because it stopped him from moving the New England Patriots to Baltimore several years ago and forced him to sell the team.

Asked about Kiam, Davis said, "Victor Kiam's in line."

Davis added, "Joe Alioto is a brilliant lawyer, and all they [NFL owners] keep doing is giving him food for action by doing these things."

Alioto is representing two former New England owners, Billy Sullivan and Kiam, who are suing the league. The owners also are being sued by the city of St. Louis for being charged a relocation fee for moving, while the Raiders were not when they moved back to Oakland. Just for good measure, Davis is suing the league, too, over sharing premium seat license revenues with the owners.

Davis also complained that the league never made a ruling on whether Modell's team met the moving guidelines.

"I think that's why they lose in court, because they're selective and discriminatory. There is no question about it," Davis said.

Davis won a court fight against the league in 1982 to move the Raiders from Oakland to Los Angeles.

Marc Ganis, president of SportsCorp, a Chicago consulting firm that helped negotiate the Rams deal in St. Louis, said: "Look at the lawsuits that are currently outstanding. You have Sullivan, Kiam, you have St. Louis and you have the Raiders. Can people use this precedent to help them in those lawsuits? There's something to be discussed there."

He also said there's a "me too" factor.

"OK, well if you did that for Cleveland and the Browns, why don't you do it for Seattle and [owner Ken] Behring? If you do it for them, why don't you do it for Tampa Bay and the Bucs?

"And if you're going to do it for teams that are relocating, why don't you help the teams that are looking for new stadiums where they are?" Ganis added.

Maryland Stadium Authority chairman John Moag said the league and commissioner Paul Tagliabue took the legal questions into consideration.

"I imagine the antitrust lawyers have been guiding Tagliabue on what exactly he has to say," Moag said.

Tagliabue ducked all those questions when he made yesterday's announcement. He said he didn't want to speculate and added that the Cleveland-Baltimore situation was a special one.

Tagliabue called the league simply a "stand-in" for the next owner of the Browns when it lent the money to Cleveland.

Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said: "The Cleveland situation had certain characteristics and things about it that made it unique and made this a good deal for everyone concerned."

New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft said: "If we didn't come up with a proper resolution of this, it would have hurt the basic fabric of the league.

"In an ideal world, I would have liked to have seen Cleveland stay there. But if the Big Dawg is happy, I'm happy. We've got to be very careful of our fans."

The Big Dawg, leading Cleveland fan John Thompson, endorsed the plan.

Even though the majority of owners backed the deal, two teams, the Steelers and Bills, were against it to the end.

Art J. Rooney II, a Steelers executive, said the team is unhappy that the league didn't follow its own guidelines.

"We're not sure what happened to the guidelines. It was a settlement of litigation that kind of ignored the guidelines. Our position is we either have guidelines or we don't. If we have them, let's follow them," Rooney said.

Rooney said the Steelers would have been willing to fight in court to block Modell's move to Baltimore if it had been decided the team didn't meet the guidelines.

Tagliabue said the league didn't have to determine whether the move met the guidelines because of the settlement. He conceded the move didn't meet some of the guidelines regarding fan support, but said an overall decision wasn't made.

The Steelers were happy about some of the concessions Browns owner Art Modell made, including giving up his right to vote on realignment.

"He can't vote against [the league] placing him in a different division," Rooney said.

That's important to the Steelers because they want to be in the same division with the new Cleveland team, which could force the Baltimore team to change divisions.

Although the owners seemed satisfied with the settlement, one lonely fan picketed the hotel dressed as the Grim Reaper to protest the agreement because he believes Cleveland lost its team.

Describing himself as a Browns fan who would identify himself only as "Bubba," he said, "If your mother dies and your father remarries, you have a new mother, but it's not the same."

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