Believe it or not, the sports metaphor "political football" has been part of the electoral landscape in this country for nearly 200 years. Safire's Political Dictionary quotes an 1800 reference to that effect. It means "an innocent civic or philanthropic project used to make a political issue."
But rarely, if ever, has the phrase been used in its current context in which the game of professional football has intruded directly into the political arena. It has become an issue in the race for governor of Maryland: this time, it is a real political football.
Jack Kent Cooke, the 81-year-old eccentric mega-millionaire owner of the Washington Redskins, is on the verge of buying 55 acres of land next to Laurel Race Course, where he plans to build a $150 million football stadium. His objectives are hardly in this region's best interests, but he couldn't care less.
What Mr. Cooke has in mind is permanently locking Baltimore out of the race for a National Football League team. Building a stadium 14 miles from Camden Yards would accomplish that.
And more important, it would capture for Mr. Cooke's Redskins a huge new audience for pay-per-view television -- perceived by many sports owners as the wave of the future. Instead of a market with 2.5 million potential pay-per-view subscribers in metropolitan Washington, he'd wind up with a PPV market of 5 million in the BaltWash megalopolis.
What has made this a political issue is that candidates for governor are jumping in quickly to take a position -- and the retiring Governor Schaefer has declared war on Mr. Cooke for sabotaging his efforts to bring an NFL team to Baltimore. The governor would much rather Mr. Cooke keep his Redskins in the District of Columbia, where they belong.
Opinion is split on the political impact of favoring or opposing the Redskins-to-Laurel move.
Clearly, Rep. Helen Bentley sees the move as a major bonus in her effort to become governor. She's been working for weeks to get Mr. Cooke to move to Maryland. She sees it as her way of winning voters to her side in the Washington suburbs, and showing voters the kind of determined deal maker she can be. It also would help bail out a big financial supporter, Laurel track owner Joe De Francis.
Mrs. Bentley's strategy could backfire. If Mr. Cooke's move ends up costing Baltimore any hope of an NFL team, she could be blamed for robbing the Baltimore area of a pro football team it could call its own. Betrayed Baltimore football fans can be vicious. Remember Bob Irsay?
Yeah, but Baltimore already roots for the Redskins on TV, the Cooke clan says. That's known as disinformation: Few football fans here give a hoot about the team from Washington and many have a long-term hatred for the 'Skins.
Persuading them to cheer for the Cooke crew would be as likely as getting Mrs. Bentley to cheer on the Bosnians in their war with Serbia. Or as author Tom Clancy once put it, "Any self-respecting Baltimorean would sell his children to Gypsies before he would root for the Redskins."
Del. Ellen Sauerbrey has staked out a position that is consistent with her previous conservative stances in the legislature: Don't spend a dime of tax money if you can get a private developer to put up the same complex for free.
This ignores the Baltimore- deserves-its-own-team argument. For Ms. Sauerbrey, one NFL team is the same as any other. That could earn her boos from football fans in Baltimore. But for Marylanders turned off by the government handouts to pro sports teams, this could prove a popular campaign theme.
Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening has staked out the most pragmatic stance: this bi-metro region deserves two NFL teams -- one in Baltimore and the other in Washington. Any football team located in between diminishes in value because it then belongs to neither region -- it is caught in a nether world that is certainly not Baltimore and no longer Washington, either.
This stance should help Mr. Glendening in wooing Baltimore-area votes since he's opposing politicians and business leaders from his home county who want the 'Skins in Laurel and don't give a hoot about Baltimore's nine-year crusade to regain its own team.
Meanwhile, Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg straddles the fence, effectively removing himself from this argument. It's a problem that plagues the lieutenant governor: He hasn't mapped out a definitive image for himself, and his stadium staddle only continues that trend.
Given the governor's adamant opposition to the Cooke maneuver, there's no way a new stadium would be ready by 1996.
And by the time Mr. Schaefer leaves office in 13 months, Mr. Cooke could well have tired of his most recent Laurel dalliance (the last one was 12 years ago when he proposed a domed stadium there) and be on his way back to the District or to Loudon County, Virginia, where officials are eager to have him develop a whopping 400-acre tract near the Redskins' training camp.
Then he could sit on his Laurel land and develop it for another purpose, or wait for the land to appreciate in value.
While Mr. Schaefer effectively ties Mr. Cooke in knots on a new Laurel stadium, the gubernatorial candidates will be constantly jockeying to exploit this issue: Go for the Baltimore-area votes by criticizing the Cooke move? Beat up on the governor for being parochial and ignoring the needs of the Washington suburbs? Exhibit a "One Maryland" stance? Or become a cheerleader for the "Two for Maryland" strategy?
As the governor and Mr. Cooke lock horns, the candidates may find this to be a very slippery political football, indeed.
Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun. His column appears here each Sunday.