NFL erred in thinking Baltimore

January 11, 2001|By Michael Olesker

NOW COMES the hour of Baltimore's national vindication. We are the town the National Football League tried to bury, and instead we bid for a championship in front of the whole country. We were yesterday's news, said Paul Tagliabue. We were no longer big league, said Robert Irsay and Jack Kent Cooke. Now Irsay and Cooke are gone, and Commissioner Tagliabue discredited, and Baltimore is risen from the grave.

We are the poke in the league's corporate eye. For a decade after Irsay absconded, the NFL's downtown boys tried to put us in the permanent past tense. They teased us with talk of expansion, and then ignored us when we put our formidable chips on the table. They forced us to grovel with a meaningless exhibition game at Memorial Stadium, for which we filled the old ballpark and cheered humiliatingly while the big shots snickered at us behind their corporate doors. Then they let Cleveland pay the price for Irsay's original sin.

We are the story the league does not wish to talk about in polite company. All those years of 33rd Street sellouts, all those years when football season tickets were seen as an inheritance instead of an investment, those years when Baltimore helped turn the league from a college football postscript to a national obsession, counted for nothing after Irsay.

We are the NFL's nagging reminder of its contempt for the people who pay its bills. We are the memo to every city that, behind all the sanctimonious talk of allegiance to fans, Irsay's gesture to Baltimore and the league's unconscionable compliance legitimized the role of blackmail in pro football - allowing ballclub owners to tell bankrupt communities: Either build us a new ballpark, or we vanish.

Professional football proceeds as though no one has any memory. Baseball has its own sins. But, when that sport showcases itself in its championship games, the television networks can weave a tapestry resembling a national history. Its lure spans the generations. We can picture Babe Ruth launching a long one, and Jackie Robinson with his indomitable courage, and Don Larsen atop his lonely hill.

Football must dance around so much of its own past or else remind an entire country of its heartlessness and its abuses. The Ravens are only part of it. One year ago, the St. Louis Rams were Super Bowl champions. They walked out on Los Angeles. One week ago, Baltimore defeated the Tennessee Titans. They deserted Houston. On Sunday, the Ravens will play the Oakland Raiders. They vacate cities at the whim of owner Al Davis.

And, preceding the Ravens game, Minnesota's Vikings will play the so-called New York Giants, who perform in a ballpark in New Jersey off a ramp of the Jersey Turnpike.

How does a league explain such a history to its national television audience? Simple. It does not. It assumes people have no memory, or that they do not care - until Baltimore's history (and those of Los Angeles and Oakland and Houston) threatens to become their own.

So now is the hour of Baltimore's vindication.

For a decade, the NFL tried to keep it from happening. The city would no longer support pro football, said Commissioner Paul Tagliabue. Take your money and build yourself a museum, he sneered. Tagliabue was the mouthpiece for Jack Kent Cooke, the Washington Redskins owner who pulled the string in the back of Tagliabue's wooden head. Cooke was preparing to move his ballclub out of Washington to Laurel, and hoping to corner the market on all Maryland money for skyboxes, and for TV revenue.

Baltimore got in Cooke's way. Tagliabue understood what Cooke wanted. The other owners, who look out for each other's greed, also understood. So they launched stories that Baltimore wasn't big league anymore.

This was before Art Modell took an offer he couldn't refuse. This was before everybody checked the sellouts of the modern Ravens, and before last week's crushing of Tennessee and the thousands who showed up at Baltimore-Washington International Airport when the Ravens' plane landed.

It's a nice story, which the TV networks will have to tell delicately. The preceding decade, they will have to dance around. The networks sleep in the same bed as the NFL.

But here's a little angle for them. Everybody looked at the Ravens' victory over the Jets two weeks ago and recalled it as Baltimore's first playoff win in a couple of decades. But they overlooked what happened the same weekend.

Forty-two years ago, in the most legendary moment in Baltimore sports history, the Colts won the NFL championship. In sudden death overtime. By a score of 23-17.

Twelve days ago, the Indianapolis Colts were knocked out of championship contention. They lost their playoff game. In sudden death overtime. By 23-17.

For the once-beloved Colts, and for the National Football League, what goes around sometimes comes around.

Now the cycle nears completion.

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