In world of National Football League, money trumps tradition every time

January 30, 2000|By Michael Olesker

THIS IS TO announce, with proper dignity and respect for the occasion, the end of all guilt when it comes to Baltimore and the National Football League. Anger and disgust, we hold onto. Contempt, absolutely. But any lingering guilt concerning that business with the Browns of Cleveland and the alleged sanctity of tradition in pro football is declared officially kaput as of today.

On this Super Bowl Sunday, four years after the arrival of the Baltimore Ravens, it is enough. Sorry, Cleveland. You got your new team, you got the old name, and never before has the whole country seen so vividly how both our cities were suckers in a high-stakes business played by hypocritical rich people who go wherever they figure to become even richer.

Life, as it is lived in the National Football League, goes like this:

A team called the St. Louis Rams, which exists because it dumped the city of Los Angeles, will play for the professional football championship today. The Rams were previously owned by a man named Carroll Rosenbloom, who got them in a trade for a team named the Baltimore Colts. Shortly after Rosenbloom left Baltimore, so did those Colts. Shortly after Rosenbloom left all earthly existence, Los Angeles or elsewhere, those Rams left L.A.

Today these new St. Louis Rams will play a team called the Tennessee Titans, who exist because they dumped the city of Houston. The Titans reached this Super Bowl by first beating the Indianapolis Colts, dumpers of Baltimore, and then beating a team called the Jacksonville Jaguars, which did not exist until a few years ago, when they were created as an expansion franchise that should have been granted to emotionally bereft Baltimore.

Are we still angry? Well, yes and n

Well, yes. Because instead of our old team, or even a new one we didn't have to take from somebody else, we got a bill for about $175 million to construct a new ballpark, and the contemptible holdup known as personal seat licenses, and an owner who brings more ill will by selling the rights to name the stadium built with fans' money to a private corporation (PSINet) that will pay him still millions more.

And professional football marches blithely on, pretending some weepy connection of the heart with the ticket buyers who support the game.

You can be certain that, in the midst of today's multi-hour broadcast orgy, the history of these two franchises, St. Louis and Tennessee, and the body blows they dealt their previous communities, will be brushed aside.

The histories of Los Angeles and Houston: In the lexicon of the TV networks, do they exist or has each become a collective nonperson, like Khrushchev? Cleveland and Baltimore: Was there actual recorded life before these new-issue Browns and these Ravens? Not that network broadcasters will want to mention.

This year's football playoffs were crowded with teams that dumped cities and with other teams created by expansion while Baltimore was ignored. And, in every case of teams moving around, some form of blackmail was involved: Build us a new ballpark or we leave. And throw in concession and parking money and stadium-naming money. And never mind all those far more pressing municipal problems deserving of community money.

And speaking of money, let's talk about the real stuff: television and the commercials that make the game almost incidental. The last time the NFL signed a TV deal, four networks -- ABC, CBS, Fox and ESPN -- agreed to pay the league $18 billion over eight years, about double the old deal.

How do these networks afford such a price tag? Well, for openers, a commercial spot on today's telecast will cost about $3 million for 30 seconds. These will run incessantly. And, consumers, guess who will ultimately foot the bill for them?

Then we come to one last irony of this year's game. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, noticing the latest controversy in Columbia, S.C., regarding the Confederate flag flying over the State House, last week asked the NFL for a simple gesture of conscience.

Put a small American flag on each player's uniform, he said. The idea was that this is our flag and not the old Confederacy's. Never mind if you agree with Jackson. The point is the NFL's response: It wouldn't get involved in this dispute, the league declared in its corporate voice, because it is not a political advocacy group.

Oh, no? Try telling that to people around here, or in Cleveland or Houston or Los Angeles or any of the cities that once had ballclubs they supported with their money and their hearts, until the political advocates of the National Football League moved them somewhere else. It's a league in perpetual flight and perpetual political advocacy.

Baltimore should feel guilty about the Ravens? Nah. If the old Cleveland team hadn't come here, they'd have gone somewhere else. It's all part of the game, as surely as glorious forearm shivers, gracefully wrecked kneecaps and $3 million commercials whose tab you can add to the cost of your personal seat license.

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