With Rhinos fiasco, NFL discovers nicknames are serious business


There's an old joke about the football coach who was so disgusted with the way his team was playing that he decided to open his next team meeting with a prop.

"Gentleman, this is a football," he said.

Maybe it's time for the NFL to get that message.

If there was a lesson in the Rhinos nickname controversy last week, it was that the NFL has to remember it's in the football business, not the marketing business.

The only consolation was that when the NFL heard about the uproar in Baltimore, it quickly backed away from the nickname and went back to the drawing board.

It's hard to believe that the league came up with the nickname in the first place.

Can you imagine George Halas, Art Rooney or Pete Rozelle ever suggesting "Rhinos" with a straight face?

The NFL doesn't seem to understand that football fans take their nicknames seriously.

In a Sports Illustrated article this week about marketing in Europe, there was an anecdote about two boys in the former East Germany wearing caps of the Los Angeles Raiders and the San Francisco 49ers. When they met an NFL official, they said, "The NFL . . . it is a clothing company?"

There were two positive results for Baltimore in the Rhinos controversy. The first is that the fans cared so much about the nickname.

Herbert J. Belgrad, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority, said: "The fact that it's stirred debate and controversy speaks for itself. Rather than apathy, the fans have a proprietary interest."

The second was that NFL Properties is suddenly so interested in getting Baltimore a nickname. Along with commissioner Paul Tagliabue, NFL Properties has been Charlotte's biggest supporter because it felt it could sell more souvenirs in the two-state area of the Carolinas than in Baltimore.

If NFL Properties really wants to sell T-shirts in Baltimore, it should help the city buy back the Colts nickname from Indianapolis owner Bob Irsay.

At the Super Bowl in Minneapolis two years ago, a woman selling NFL merchandise said: "Nobody wants Indianapolis Colts stuff, but we still get requests for things with the Baltimore Colts logo."

Full speed ahead

All the controversy over the nickname obscured the fact that Baltimore continues to move toward a sellout of its sky boxes and club seats.

The next report is due tomorrow, and Belgrad said the city will have more than 90 sky boxes and more than 6,000 club seats sold.

Belgrad also said the league has informed him that Baltimore will make its presentation to the expansion and finance committees in Chicago on Sept. 21 between 3 and 5 p.m.

The city gets two hours to make a presentation because it has two ownership groups. The other three cities get 90 minutes.

In the latest handicapping of the race, Sport magazine picks St. Louis and Baltimore as "locks," and the Kiplinger Washington Letter says St. Louis and Charlotte "will toast" new franchises.

This is a case of a sports magazine understanding NFL financing better than a business newsletter. Kiplinger obviously needs to go back and crunch the numbers again to understand that public stadium funding gives Baltimore and St. Louis the edge.

Patriot games

The state of Connecticut looks as if it's serious in its bid to get the New England Patriots to move.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers met privately Friday with Gov. Lowell Weicker to plan their strategy.

"The franchise, if it comes to Connecticut, needs to be successful as a business," House Majority Leader Thomas. B. Luby said. "We're not here to bring in a white elephant."

Labor peace?

Remember that labor agreement between the owners anplayers that was supposed to bring labor peace for the rest of the decade?

Well, it should come as no surprise that they're fighting again. It's a habit.

The latest battle is over the attempt by teams to subvert the rookie signing pool with exotic incentive clauses. Tagliabue's decision to void Rick Mirer's contract was only the first shot in this battle. The NFL Players Association will object and an arbitrator will have to make a ruling.

Jerry blinks

Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys, blinked first in his holdout struggle with running back Emmitt Smith.

He decided not to send Smith one of those new holdout letters that would have sidelined Smith for the opener if he hadn't reported by this weekend.

Jones wants to give himself more time to try to coax Smith into camp for the opener against the Washington Redskins.

As it turned out, only 11 letters were sent around the league. The team that took the biggest risk was the Phoenix Cardinals. The Cardinals sent them out to two defensive starters, Eric Hill and Robert Massey.

They didn't report over the weekend, so they're out of the opener against the Philadelphia Eagles. If they don't report by next weekend, they're out of the second game against the Redskins.

Because Massey picked off Mark Rypien twice in the fourth quarter last year in Phoenix and ran them back for touchdowns, Rypien won't be unhappy if Massey stays out at least another week.

One person who will be unhappy is Cardinals coach Joe Bugel. He has been told he has to win nine games to keep his job and he needs both players.

Buddy's back

Buddy Ryan is wasting no time creating an "us vs. them"

mentality as the defensive coordinator of the Houston Oilers. He keeps taking potshots at the Oilers' run-and-shoot offense.

He calls it "chuck and duck" and has pulled his defense off the field on occasion before the offense is finished running its plays.

When the Oilers scrimmaged the Dallas Cowboys, he said: "We get to play against a pro offense, and we haven't been able to do that." He keeps saying the run-and-shoot has never won a title.

Quarterback Warren Moon shot back: "He can talk about our offense, but I think it's still the bread-and-butter of this team."

Oh, yes, Ryan also says it's going to be an All-Texas Super Bowl, with one "if."

.' "If Dallas makes it," he said.

Iron Mike's back

Former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka has started a weekly radio appearance and didn't rule out the possibility of returning to the sidelines.

"I didn't burn out," he said. "If a right opportunity comes up to coach again, it would be an intriguing possibility. I realize there is no loyalty in sports. Maybe part of my problem was that I was too loyal to older players. No coach in football ever supported an organization like I did. Maybe to a fault. Maybe that's what got me fired."

He wished new coach Dave Wannstedt success and said: "I have tremendous respect for him. Just don't get in the restaurant business."

Incidentally, Ryan hasn't forgotten Ditka.

"He ought to do a good job [on radio and TV]," Ryan said. "He's been an actor for a long time."

Wilber's unhappy

You don't think Wilber Marshall is happy in Houston just because he's making $2.9 million, do you?

Even though he's sidelined after undergoing knee surgery, he's unhappy that he didn't get the $9.75 million contract that Derrick Thomas got from the Kansas City Chiefs. He's still suing over his franchise-player designation.

And he's not pleased the NFLPA agreed to the labor settlement.

"Aren't they supposed to be fighting for everybody? They sold us down the river," he said.

The thumb

After Steve Young broke his thumb last week, team president Carmen Policy of the San Francisco 49ers said: "Just keep your )) hands in your pockets."

Owner Edward DeBartolo responded: "What do you mean? His hands have been in my pockets for a long time."

Young is the highest-paid player in pro football after signing a $26.75 million deal.

No comment

Joe Montana, who made his debut with the Kansas CitChiefs Thursday night, would have been back playing for the 49ers when Young went down if he had been willing to stay.

Montana declined to comment on Young's injury.

"I'm better off not saying anything," he said. "Somebody will take you wrong no matter what you say. I don't care about it. I've got my own problems to worry about."

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