Backwater NFL is going from big- to bush-league


Tear up the script. Partake of a new game plan. The NFL, which once had thoughts of taking its show to all corners of the globe, has reversed its field. Instead of thinking "big," it's now thinking "small."

In going to Jacksonville, Fla., the NFL has served notice it is on track to work its way down to bush-league status. Resurrect the Rock Island Independents and Frankford Yellow Jackets. The Stapleton Stapes and Columbus Panhandles, too.

The NFL demonstrated a lust for cities where it can set up a franchise that lacks competition from other sports, which means it must have reservations about its ability to compete in areas that have rival major-league attractions.

To betray Baltimore in the fashion it has (not once but twice) is a humiliation that should concern the NFL. It should take stock of itself for displaying a lack of human consideration for a city that has been violated twice -- first when Bob Irsay took the Colts to Indianapolis in 1984 and now with his colleagues rejecting an opportunity to right a serious wrong when it had a chance to address the subject via the expansion issue.

Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and the owners created the potential of a public relations disaster in the way St. Louis, Memphis, Tenn., and Baltimore, in particular, were rejected for a backwater. They need to ask themselves if such characteristics as common decency, honor and credibility still have a place on the roster of respected human values.

Baltimore was manipulated in every way. It sold tickets and the state approved funding for a new football stadium and met every deadline with minute precision. Yet, the NFL decided to take Jacksonville, Fla., and Charlotte, N.C., when it awarded franchises to two new cities.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer put his neck on the line in making the money available for a 72,000-seat stadium. He was thrilled as Baltimore fans and the business community responded with perfect cooperation in buying expensive tickets, a stipulation that the league insisted be met.

His staff members now say he was deeply offended when NFL president Neil Austrian, serving as Tagliabue's point man; Roger Goodell, vice president of operations, and Joe Ellis, director of club administration, visited the Chicago hotel suite on Tuesday afternoon -- after the decision was made -- and said: "I guess you heard, huh?"

No, they hadn't been told. It was then that Schaefer turned his back as Austrian delivered the message that Baltimore was a loser. Schaefer, as chief executive officer of this state, deserved something better than that.

He found out in a hurry how the NFL commissioner, his aides and the club owners felt about Baltimore. They obviously weren't impressed with the city's extraordinary renaissance. When the league picked Jacksonville, bypassing Baltimore and St. Louis, it's playing its way out of the big leagues.

On the home front, from Backbone Mountain in Western Maryland to the crab flats of the Chesapeake Bay and on to the Atlantic Ocean, there's nothing but anger that a league could have such little concern for a community that contributed some of its grand history. Over $50 million is in the bank for tickets designated for an expansion team. That money should start to be refunded within 48 hours or sooner.

An existing team transferring from some other NFL city is not entitled to that kind of a windfall. An outfit from Los Angeles would like to move in and line its pockets with the rich bounty that awaits.

If it decides to take up residence in Baltimore, then let its owner and general manager walk the city streets knocking on doors to sell the seats on their own merits and not profit from the work contributed by so many others, including Matt DeVito, Ernie Accorsi, Herb Belgrad and a host of volunteers.

In this connection, sportscaster Keith Mills of WMAR-TV presented the following question: "Should we lure an existing team or end the bid?" The result was emphatic. A total of 63 percent of respondents voted no; only 37 percent said to go for it.

A look at the demographics, which the NFL likes to use in measuring the worth of a city, shows Baltimore to be the 22nd TV market with a metropolitan population of 2.43 million. Contrast that with Jacksonville, which has the 56th TV market and 943,000 residents.

Nothing against Jacksonville. It's just that the NFL has developed a fondness for tank towns.

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