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Dry Your Tears, Baltimore


Keep in perspective that (1) Baltimore is not through with the National Football League, (2) football is a doomed sport and (3) Baltimore needs a great basketball arena more than it needs a new football stadium.

First things first. The beauty contest -- awarding points for club seats, subsidy guarantees and bathing suits as contestants prance on the runway in some seedy hotel -- was always about more than a new franchise. Baltimore, St. Louis, Memphis, Charlotte and Jacksonville were competing as much to lure existing franchises from Boston, Los Angeles, Tampa Bay or elsewhere, as to qualify for a new franchise. They just were not told that up front.

This does not guarantee that an unhappy team is heading straight to Baltimore. It does mean that some may use the threat to extort greater concessions from existing landlords.

Another possibility is that the Canadian Football League, eager to crack the U.S. market as its own crumbles, will invade. But the NFL dalliance comes first.

Sore losers were not sure they want to play with the NFL any more. That will pass. Ethical scruples against franchise-raiding, invented after the Colts fled, were unknown when the sainted Orioles came, and have been discarded.

Now for my second point. Football may still be a vibrant spectator attraction, but the talent pool is shrinking drastically and, in the long run, terminally.

When I was a kid, football was what you did in the autumn. We organized ourselves and banged heads. By the time high school coaches took control, players had been teaching themselves to block and tackle for five years. That is no longer so. Drive through Baltimore City and County on an autumn Saturday and most parks and schoolyards are full of multitudes of boys playing soccer, few playing football. It is happening all over the country.

Football has grown so freakish with body building, sci-fi armor, expenses, hyper-specialization, injuries and steroid rage culture that the mothers of America are not letting their sons play it. And they are right.

This trend is uneven. Football mania still grips small towns of Ohio and all Texas.

In Baltimore, this is a cultural difference between racial groups. In white neighborhoods, you see soccer; in black neighborhoods, football. Black migration to the suburbs, however, is diverting more young players to soccer.

As a result, high school coaches now prowl the halls looking for big guys they can cajole into football, promising to teach the game. It was not formerly thus.

More colleges will be dropping the sport, particularly Division III schools that do not recruit athletes but provide varsities for students who crave to play. Loyola College of Maryland, Division I and often nationally ranked in soccer and lacrosse, shows how macho a school can be without football. Goucher College, setting up varsities to attract male students, has no need for football. Haverford in Pennsylvania does just fine without it.

Spectator habits lag behind participant demand, but as fewer people play the game and understand its finer points, quality will go down and fewer will watch.

Now for my third point. A football stadium seating 70,000 is a huge public investment for eight home dates a year, plus a couple of pre-season exhibitions and, with luck, a post-season play-off.

What Baltimore really needs is a National Basketball Association franchise, a college in a major conference that would draw as well and -- more iffy here -- a National Hockey League team.

These require a venue with half again as many seats as the Baltimore Arena and much better comforts.

Now that Baltimore is such a hothouse producer of basketball talent, the market is here. Since one-fourth of the metropolitan population is black, its loyalty to a local NBA team would provide more black patronage than can be seen at Oriole Park.

As for colleges, surely one from among Towson State, Loyola, Coppin State, UMBC and Morgan State is ready to break through to the next level. It is not hard to imagine Towson or Loyola in the Big East.

Getting into the basketball big time would do more for the economy, self-respect and joie de vivre of Baltimore than returning to the NFL, and would use the facility better and pay it off sooner.

Those are my main points. There is a fourth. To echo the philosopher L. O. Annie, the sun will come out tomorrow.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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