Playing political football with NFL team

February 22, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The blessings of professional football arrive with a few curses. You want to see Vinny Testaverde throwing long, first you have to watch the House Ways and Means Committee throwing its weight around.

The legislators feel left out and wish to make Art Modell and Jack Kent Cooke, and everyone else connected with the various Maryland ballpark deals, pay the price for their hurt feelings. They think Parris Glendening should have included them in his secret football talks instead of hogging all the fun for himself.

Yesterday, sitting in a congested hearing room, committee members sounded as if they'd discovered, a little late in the game, that everybody's been suckered into a bad deal, and now they have to scramble to save a little face.

"I wish you'd told us first, before we got here," said David Hopcraft, spokesman for Art Modell. He meant all the changes in the wind, the displeasure over who pays how much of this $200 million stadium price tag, and the general feeling that Modell's making out like a bandit.

Gee whiz, these Cleveland folks seem to be implying, you mean there's a legislative process involved before we can open up for business?

"Weren't you told there would be legislative involvement?" asked Del. Jim Campbell of Baltimore.

"Art believed, when he signed with the governor, that was the deal," said Hopcraft.

"The deal," said Del. James Rosapepe, of Prince George's County, "is very generous to Mr. Modell. Don't you run the risk of looking greedy?"

"We signed in good faith," said Hopcraft, not precisely answering the greediness question. "We were told to get out of Cleveland and to get NFL approval. We did, and it cost us. We have relocation [expenses.]"

"But don't you think it's excessive to ask Marylanders to pay those fees?" Rosapepe asked.

"No," said Hopcraft.

In a jammed hallway outside the hearing room, Hopcraft softened his posture a little. Nobody wants to screw up this engagement now. Modell, frankly, can't exactly go back to Cleveland, and the state of Maryland doesn't want to send out signals that it's unfriendly to business.

Modell, said Hopcraft as he headed to another hearing, "thought he had a deal. Is he concerned? Yes. Is he delighted? No. But he understands this is an important public issue, and he's a good citizen who wants to get off to a good start."

In other words, solutions will be found. By late afternoonl, Hopcraft was confirming reports that Modell will kick in $24 million of the stadium costs. Why not? After losing big money in Cleveland (according to his own bookkeeping) he looks to make a fortune here. So he could bend a little.

Meanwhile, legislators -- particularly those far from the Baltimore area -- will strut their stuff to show the folks at home that they're shocked, shocked by the ballpark deal. They're not entirely wrong, either. Modell's getting too big a break, and fans are getting stiffed by these personal seat licenses. In a time of crushing social problems, can we afford ballpark money?

But you don't measure the value of a sports franchise entirely in dollars -- any more than you measure the cost of a symphony hall or a library that way. Such things contribute to the livability of a community, its culture, the way it feels about itself when it isn't feeling horrified over its shameful housing conditions or its gutless City Council.

In the House Ways and Means hearing room yesterday, there were people wearing jackets with the old Baltimore Colts colors on them. Twelve years after the theft of their old team, these folks still belong to Colts Corrals, 20 different corrals, and they arrived yesterday from places such as Severna Park and Hagerstown, Carney and Arnold, and Bowie and Rosedale.

They're working-class folks, mostly, whose social lives once revolved around their football team. Yesterday, they heard testimony that the average personal seat license will cost about $1,500. Everybody hates such an invention. But they've made a certain peace with the new economics of pro football, and they listened as Jim Phillips, president of the Council of Colts Corrals, told the legislators:

"Build it, and we will come."

Abhorrent as it is, it's the modern cost of doing NFL business. Thank you, Robert Irsay. Yesterday, the Greater Baltimore Committee's Donald Hutchinson remembered Irsay. In Irsay's time, Hutchinson was Baltimore County executive.

"I flew to Chicago to meet with Irsay," Hutchinson said. William Donald Schaefer was there, too. "We all thought we had good-faith agreements [to keep the Colts in Baltimore] several times. I was more shocked than anybody when Irsay left.

"It would be unconscionable," Hutchinson said, "for a governmental entity to (kill) a deal" the way Irsay did.

Nobody wants to kill the deal, just change the dollars around. Football's coming. But the legislature needs to flex its muscles before the Baltimore Whatevers can flex theirs.

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