Does road lead only to St. Louis?


An exhaustive process that mobilized leaders of corporate communities, scores of civic leaders and an army of plain, old football fans across the country has come full circle.

When NFL owners huddle at a hotel outside Chicago tomorrow, they will try to put the expansion debate behind them. But in the instant they award that 30th franchise, there almost certainly will be charges of injustice from the three also-rans.

Indeed, if Baltimore doesn't get a team tomorrow and St. Louis does, the darkest suspicions of a city starved for football doubtless will be galvanized in outrage.

Suspicions that this was a done deal from the beginning. That the NFL wanted Charlotte and St. Louis all along. That Atlantic seaboard geography was merely an excuse that enabled the NFL to go where it wanted to go.

Fair or flawed? The most scrutinized NFL expansion ever has been cloaked in innuendo, ravaged by rumor. There were blown deadlinesand unsold seats in St. Louis. There were revised financial packages and private liaisons in Charlotte.

But the most curious red flag went up in Chicago Oct. 26, when the owners unanimously awarded their 29th franchise to Charlotte, then deferred a decision until tomorrow on the second expansion team. That delay left four cities dangling, including Memphis, Tenn., and Jacksonville, Fla., and fueled the belief it was designed solely to allow late-arriving E. Stanley Kroenke, Wal-Mart heir and potential owner in St. Louis, to get that city's house in order.

NFL officials say there was no such plot.

"The last 30 days is where most of the criticism has come," said NFL vice president Roger Goodell, the man who has overseen the process. "I understand that. There was the perception St. Louis was a lock. [But] that is unfounded. It's just not the case. Now, people are saying Baltimore is a lock.

"Any time you have a process like this, there's so much emotion in it, you have people saying the system is unfair. Every city can look in the mirror and say, 'Maybe I got a break here, a break there.' . . . We've got to find the best city."

The delay drew criticism from officials in Jacksonville and Memphis. On Oct. 27, J. Wayne Weaver, who heads the Jacksonville effort, said: "In my judgment, it's very difficult for the NFL to award St. Louis a franchise with an 11th-hour entry. That's just not playing by the rules. If that's the case, I think the NFL is going to have an enormous public-relations problem explaining there wasn't a bias going on."

Two days after that, William B. Dunavant Jr., a cotton merchant who leads the effort in Memphis, disputed a statement by commissioner Paul Tagliabue that all four remaining cities were still in the running. "I'm not sure I buy that," he said.

Memphis still isn't buying it. Asked recently if he felt there were a league bias toward St. Louis, Memphis spokesman Pepper Rodgers said: "I don't know if there is or isn't, but it seems that way."

What rankles Rodgers is the appearance that rules were being bent to accommodate St. Louis.

"We go to Chicago and think we've got a real chance," Rodgerssaid. "Then we find out the rules change. Whoever's got the ball changes the rules. . . . You've done what they asked you to do, but it didn't count. They [owners] tell you one day the ownership group is the most important part of the deal. The next day, they tell you they will pick a team without an owner."

Herbert J. Belgrad, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority, said he doesn't believe Baltimore has been treated unfairly by the NFL.

"I think there's a general and widespread impression that Charlotte and St. Louis were predestined to get teams," he said. "A number of events subsequently have appeared to support that conclusion, and that has tainted the process. But in my opinion, that's not the case."

Belgrad said he feels Baltimore was better served by the delay than St. Louis because of the addition of Alfred Lerner to the city's bid. Lerner, part-owner of the Cleveland Browns, filed an ownership application Nov. 15, addressing what city organizers believed was an ownership deficiency.

"I don't see where St. Louis has benefited from this delay in that the same ownership group present on [Oct. 26] is there today, and the issue of who controls the [stadium] lease is still unresolved," Belgrad said.

MA One source involved in Baltimore's application said he thinks

"the league office wants to go to St. Louis, [but] I don't believe the owners in general have a passion for St. Louis."

For all of the speculation about preferential treatment, there is no smoking gun, just circumstantial evidence:

* The NFL instituted a premium-seating campaign last summer designed to support each city's projections on ticket sales. The campaign was critical to the Charlotte effort, because money from premium-seat licenses is going toward private stadium construction. Belgrad opposed the plan, but now says "it was the best thing that happened to us" because of the sellout of both sky boxes and club seats.

* St. Louis announced a sellout of club seats at the Sept. 3 deadline, only to come up short when NFL auditors arrived. The city continued to sell those seats beyond the deadline, a violation of the league's rule. Goodell said, however, that only the confirmed figures of Sept. 3 will be presented to the Expansion and Finance committees.

* St. Louis also missed a target date of Oct. 11 to file a $20 million letter of credit. It wasn't until the Oct. 26 meeting that late-arriving Kroenke filed the letter of credit.

* There is a popular perception that Tagliabue has pushed for the tandem of Charlotte and St. Louis.And it was unusual, if not unprecedented in the NFL, that he appointed himself chairman of the Expansion Committee. Furthermore, there apparently were several leaks from the league office late in the process identifying Charlotte and St. Louis as the front-runners. Asked about Tagliabue's influence, Rodgers said: "A commissioner always has influence, or why be commissioner?"

* George Vukasin, who headed the expansion effort by Oakland, Calif., early in the process, said his city's chances were hurt when Tagliabue named San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. and San Diego Chargers owner Alex Spanos to the Expansion Committee.

"DeBartolo did not want another team in the Bay area, and said so," said Vukasin. "Spanos did not want another team in $H California and refused to meet with us at any time."

Oakland was eliminated in May 1992. "I was disappointed with the makeup of the committee," Vukasin said. "But Tagliabue treated us fairly."

* Several sources said they understood Charlotte owner Jerry Richardson had considerable contact with league owners throughout the process. If true, the private meetings were in violation of another rule set up to minimize the political process.

Goodell, who rebutted all criticism of the league, said the process had been a good one.

"We have attempted in every way to keep this decision on a business level and not make it a political process," he said.

"When you do something as emotional as this, you'll always be criticized. The bottom line is if we come up with the two best cities, and we think we've been fair to each city, then I think we've done a heck of a job."

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