How We Can Get the Last Laugh


Havre de Grace.--There, there, Baltimore. Everything will be all right. Take down all the black crepe and give us a brave little smile through the tears.

That's better! As Mayor Schmoke says, it's always darkest just before the dawn. The hurt won't last. And remember that good luck often drives away bad. It might even turn out that Tuesday, which seemed so dreadful at the time, was really your lucky day.

Of course the news did come as an awful shock. You'd been led to believe that the National Football League was about to give you a lovely present, and when you came to the party and were sent home empty-handed you felt cheated and miserable. It's amazing how heartless the grown-up world can be.

Hard though it is for you to accept, the eminences of the NFL weren't swayed in the slightest by your presentation. All but ignored were your slides, your charts, the eloquence of your William Donald Schaefer and the persistence of your Herb Belgrad. Charlotte, an overgrown subdivision in North Carolina, will have a new professional football franchise. You, Memphis and Jacksonville won't. At least not yet.

Right now, you see the ruling of the NFL poohbahs as a civic calamity. You feel angry and humiliated. For the second time in a decade you've been stood up in favor of some hinterland bus stop masquerading as a city. The first time cost you the Colts, the second what was left of your self-respect. Don't those people realize who you used to be?

There, there. The time may come when you see your failure to get a football franchise not as a defeat but as a narrow escape. It may awaken you to the fact, already appreciated by millions of Americans, that there's life beyond the NFL. You haven't lost a team, you've salvaged your Sundays.

In the pre-Irsay days, when football had a basic blue-collar appeal, the Baltimore Colts were an important part of the fabric of their city. But that era's past. Professional football as conducted by the NFL isn't what it was. Players, coaches and owners frequently have only a tenuous connection with their "home" communities, and while the game itself does make some people associated with it rich, there's not much evidence that it makes the cities where it's played better places to live.

Even so, there's still a fundamental American desire to watch football in the fall, and neither soccer nor an extended baseball season are likely to satisfy it. There ought to be a way to provide this traditional entertainment to Marylanders without having to lick the boots of the NFL -- and as it happens, there is.

A solution is staring us in the face. The people currently applying for NFL franchises don't have a team, but they have plenty of money. Our own University of Maryland doesn't have much money these days, but it does have a team. You don't need a degree is market economics to see that here we have the basis for a deal.

If the Boogie and his associates want a football team, they should buy the university's. It isn't a very good one, but it could no doubt be improved. And so could the university, which has been complaining recently about budget cuts, and asserting that it can't keep its best professors because it can't pay them enough. The Boogie's bucks would help a lot.

The idea of selling a big-time college football team to a private owner isn't new. Steven Muller, the former president of Johns Hopkins, recently suggested that if alumni associations are so keen to have championship teams, they should buy them from their schools and take charge of hiring the players.

That would free the schools not only of the expense of maintaining football facilities, Dr. Muller noted, but also of the embarrassment of continual recruiting scandals. It would let the alumni hire the best players it could afford. And, without the need for players to attend class, it would provide an improved minor-league system for the NFL.

That's fine as far as it goes, but with a high-powered ownership group assembled by the Boogie it would go a lot farther. The Maryland Terrapins -- a much better name than Bombers -- could soon become a college-level powerhouse. Other university teams, professional or not, would fight to get on the schedule.

Ownership groups from Memphis, Jacksonville and elsewhere, rejected by the NFL, could take their money and make similar arrangements with impoverished universities in their own neighborhoods. New rivalries would spring up. New bowl games would be scheduled. The first thing you know, there would be television contracts, product endorsements, a players' union, and a tire company blimp.

With the sky boxes full and the money rolling in, Baltimore, you'd have the last laugh on those 28 bullies from the NFL. And it would all be because things didn't quite work out the way you hoped last Tuesday.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer. His column appears Sundays and Thursdays.

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