The penalties of sports: How teams cheat fans

January 23, 2001|By Jeffrey M. Landaw

IN THE JOE NAMATH era, things were so much simpler. If you were a Jets fan, a good day was one when the Jets won. A really good day was when the Jets won and the Giants lost.

To a partisan of the underdog American Football League, the Giants seemed to be just begging for someone to pin a "Kick Me" sign to the seat of their pants -- which, as they started to lose in the mid-1960s, the rest of the NFL gladly did. And Joe Namath, with his longish hair, moustache and, looking back, rather naive openness about his love life, got turned into a symbol of the developing war over the counter culture that was so unlike Fran Tarkenton and the pious Giants.

I've lived 23 years in Baltimore, where the Giants are the historic enemy, beaten in 1958's "Greatest Game Ever Played," while the Jets are the agents of catastrophe in the 1969 Super Bowl. So it's a strange, even weird, feeling, but until Sunday, this old Jets fan is wearing a Giants-blue heart on his sleeve.

It's not just a matter of being from New York. When the Colts beat the Dallas Cowboys in the 1971 Super Bowl, I was still basking in the glow of the Jets' victory. But I rejoiced that Baltimore had put America's Self-Described Team in its place.

When the Colts were snatched away in the middle of the night, I joined in the outrage, as anyone with a moral compass would have done. When the NFL openly rigged its competition for new teams against us, I cried foul with the rest. But when our city fathers decided to get back into the league by doing to Cleveland what had been done to us, I hit my limit.

We do owe Art Modell thanks for one thing: He made it impossible for us to hide what we were doing, even from ourselves. If we'd stolen a brain-dead team like the Buccaneers or Patriots (as they were then) or the Cardinals (as they still are) we might have been able to slide by the point that big-league teams almost always get the support they deserve and pretend that nobody much minded. But stealing the Browns, with their history and continuing fan support, meant taking the stench right in the face.

It would be pleasant to be able to root for the Ravens, some of whose players are not only talented but seem engaging. But nothing they, or anyone else, can do can remove the franchise's taint of usurpation and illegitimacy.

The Ravens have no more right to be in Baltimore than the Colts have to be in Indianapolis. Or the Titans in Nashville, the Cardinals in Phoenix or the Rams in St. Louis. The Raiders, whom the Ravens beat to get to the Super Bowl, did move from Los Angeles back to Oakland. But it was their previous move that opened Pandora's box.

When Al Davis, the Raiders' owner, went to court to move to Los Angeles without the league's permission, he made it possible for the Colts and the rest of the NFL rogues' gallery to kick their fans in the teeth. Every victory -- every first down -- these teams post is a deliberate slap in the face of decency and justice.

To take a position like this in today's sports industry is to feel, at best, like Woodrow Wilson in a world of Hobbeses, Machiavellis and Bismarcks. But concede any hint of squatter's rights to the Modells, Irsays and Davises? Nevermore!

Jeff Landaw, a Sun makeup editor, holds that the title America's Team has been vacant since the Dodgers left Brooklyn.

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