St. Louis climbs on 'Sue the NFL' train

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The city of St. Louis came up with an appropriate holiday stocking stuffer for the NFL last week: an antitrust lawsuit.

Wait a second.

Didn't the owners reverse themselves and vote last April 11 to approve the Rams' move after they were threatened with a $2.25 billion lawsuit?

They did, but St. Louis is suing, anyway.

Suing the NFL is a trendy thing to do. It won't be long before they have a bumper sticker reading, "Honk if you're suing the NFL."

Even Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell, who will be next in line to sue if the league tries to block his proposed move to Baltimore, was surprised at the St. Louis suit.

"I couldn't believe it. It hit me between the eyes. It's such a good deal for everybody," Modell said.

Not good enough for St. Louis. The St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission, which operates and manages the new TWA Dome, filed the suit to try to overturn the $29 million relocation fee the league assessed St. Louis. The Rams aren't a party to the suit, but they certainly didn't discourage it.

The city still wrote the league a $20 million check -- the Rams are supposed to pay the other $9 million later -- on the day the lawsuit was filed to avoid being in default of its relocation agreement with the Rams.

Basically, St. Louis is unhappy that it was charged a relocation fee and the Raiders weren't when they went back to Oakland, Calif.

The Raiders play by their own rules, but that hasn't stopped them from suing the league over the sharing of seat license money.

The St. Louis complaint says the league guidelines are a "sham -- a meaningless device to attempt to circumvent the antitrust laws." That sounds about right.

Another factor is that St. Louis is still annoyed at commissioner Paul Tagliabue for the way he treated the city in its bid for a team. St. Louis may be the only city where Tagliabue is as unpopular as he is in Baltimore.

"St. Louis has been beat up, abused and treated unfairly by the NFL," said St. Louis County Executive George "Buzz" Westfall.

Talk about used and abused. Baltimore can top anything St. Louis experienced. Baltimore has gone 12 years without a team and still doesn't know if the Browns will be forced to play in Cleveland next year. St. Louis went seven years without a team and didn't experience any backlash in the legislature about the deal because its stadium already was under construction.

St. Louis got a Rams team that already had gotten out of its lease and didn't have the passionate following the Browns have, so the city didn't get a guilt trip for stealing a storied franchise.

The Cleveland campaign may be having an effect on the psyche of Baltimore fans, who don't seem to have embraced the Browns. For the second straight week, Channel 11 won't show the Browns game today because the ones they did show got poor ratings.

It will be easy for the Browns to win over Baltimore fans, though, if they wind up suing the NFL. That would be a popular move here.

In any case, the league is paying the price for not giving expansion teams in 1993 to the two largest markets with stadium deals -- St. Louis and Baltimore.

When the league bypassed them for Carolina and Jacksonville, it set the stage for much of the turmoil and the lawsuits currently plaguing the sport.

Saving money

The Browns can save Modell at least $2 million today by beating Jacksonville, a team they lost to at home earlier in the year before the move was announced.

That's because entering play yesterday the 5-10 Browns were tied with Washington and the New York Giants for the fourth-worst record in the league.

If they lose, that means they'll have one of the top six picks in the draft. A victory likely will drop them a few spot, and that makes a big difference in the signing bonus they give their first-round pick.

Last year, the sixth pick, Kevin Carter of the St. Louis Rams, got a $5 million signing bonus. The ninth pick, Kyle Brady of the New York Jets, got a $2.7 million signing bonus. There's a huge drop-off after the top half-dozen picks.

Of course, Modell's first priority is deciding who will make the picks, but he said he has made no decisions on the future. He said he'll meet with coach Bill Belichick and personnel director Mike Lombardi the first week in January for what he called a round-table discussion about the future.

Modell indicated he won't make a decision on his coach until he finds out where the team will be playing next year.

"We have to find out where we are legally before we start making moves," Modell said. "If we play in Cleveland and are based in Baltimore, that's one scenario. If we play in Baltimore, that's another. A lot of scenarios have to play out before we start worrying about who the offensive line coach is."

That could mean Belichick will coach next year because it could be months before the lawsuit over the Cleveland lease is decided and it could be then too late to change coaches.

Modell also said he's spending most of his time preparing for his Jan. 17 presentation to the owners. He will meet with the finance and relocation committees before that, although not on the same day Cleveland makes its presentation Jan. 4.

There have been reports that the owners will delay the Jan. 17 vote because the team is still tied up in court in Ohio. Modell said he hasn't been told about a delay, but said it's a possibility.

"If they don't want to vote, so be it," he said. "I have no information either way."

Bizarre scenarios

Now that the Browns have said they're moving, nothing seems far-fetched in the NFL anymore, but it will be a long time before somebody tops the ESPN report last week that the Colts could consider moving back to Baltimore.

The amazing thing is the Colts dignified the report with a denial instead of just laughing.

The team counsel, Michael Chernoff, said, "There is nothing to it. I don't know how these things get started."

The Colts could have problems in the near future because the Irsay family will face huge estate taxes if owner Bob Irsay, who recently suffered a stroke, dies.

But moving to Baltimore isn't one of the options the Irsays would consider to solve the problem.

The coaching derby

The timing isn't the best, but the coaching firings figure to start the day after Christmas.

Sam Wyche of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Jim Mora of the New Orleans Saints figure to be first to get the pink slips, although Mora reportedly told his staff that he's a candidate for the Arizona job if Buddy Ryan is fired.

The fate of both Shulas, Don in Miami, and his son, David, in Cincinnati, is up in the air, particularly if the Dolphins don't make the playoffs.

A surprising development is that Wayne Fontes of the Detroit Lions may not be safe if his team doesn't advance in the playoffs.

The team has won six straight and made the playoffs since owner Bill Ford gave Fontes an edict that he had to make the postseason to keep his job.

Ford, though, still isn't guaranteeing that Fontes will be back. He's still upset about the 3-6 start.

"Don't get me wrong. I'm happy we made the playoffs," he said. "It's a shame that we were at 3-6. It's the whole package. It's 16 games."

The deal

Just a few weeks ago, the owners were blaming a lot of their ills on their labor deal and insisting they had to get some kind of a cap on big bonuses.

Instead, they extended the agreement last week for at least one year and possibly three without getting any cap on bonuses, although 1999 no longer will be an uncapped year.

Maybe the owners have figured out that if they learn a few lessons from the way the Deion Sanders and Andre Rison signings backfired and stop giving out huge bonuses, the cap can work for them. Football is still a team game and free agents have to fit in the structure of the team to be effective.

Meanwhile, some agents are grumbling because they had structured deals figuring 1999 would be an uncapped year.

Soap opera in Dallas

If it isn't one thing, it's another in Dallas.

Now it's quarterback Troy Aikman who is publicly grumbling. It's no secret he's not a big fan of the style of coach Barry Switzer, although he's somewhat vague in his criticism. He won't guarantee he'll play next year, though he's too young to retire at 29.

"I can't predict what's going to happen in the off-season," Aikman said. "But what I've always believed is that we all need to be committed to be reaching our potential, and if we're ever doing less than that, I don't want to be a part of it."

L Switzer blamed "outsiders" for poisoning Aikman against him.

"Troy gets squeezed all the time by people who have their opinions of me," Switzer said. "People who pretend to be his friend are trying to create a separation. Troy's got to filter through that and understand we're on the same team here."

Switzer added that since Aikman has a $50 million deal, he shouldn't be complaining.

"He's making millions. We've all got B.S. we've got to put up with. He shouldn't dwell on the negatives," Switzer said.

Back to Aikman: "Believe me, the money is nice, but I will never play for just a paycheck."

If the Cowboys don't win the Super Bowl, it's going to be a tumultuous off-season in Dallas.

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