Owners mostly uncertain on move Potential lawsuit, Tagliabue could sway Browns vote

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Mike Brown understands both sides of Art Modell's controversial plan to move the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore.

Brown, owner of the Cincinnati Bengals, long has supported the return of the NFL to Baltimore, and this past spring considered moving his team here.

Yet he says the thought of the Browns leaving Cleveland is difficult to imagine.

Brown's ambivalent comments are a snapshot of what appear to be conflicting feelings among NFL owners on the Browns' move.

"In my case, there are personal ties there. That's where my dad started," he said. "It's hard for me to see that tradition come to an end. I'm very proud of that."

Brown's father, the late Paul Brown, founded the team in 1946 and named it for himself. He ran it until Modell fired him after the 1962 season, and then founded the Bengals in 1968.

Despite those ties, Mike Brown said he isn't sure he wants a legal fight that would result if the league tries to block Modell's move. The NFL could lose millions -- if not billions -- of dollars in treble damages in an antitrust suit.

"How would you like to bet your house on that kind of a case? That's what some of us would be asked to do," Brown said. "That's hard to do. We're in a tough spot. We're damned if we do, and we're damned if we don't. My heart tells me one thing, and my head tells me another. It's a hard call."

So what will Brown do?

"I'm going to wait to hear what the commissioner [Paul Tagliabue] recommends," he said. "I think it will carry a lot of weight. He's charged with having the league's best interests at heart. When he speaks in that role, it's difficult for the clubs to disagree."

Owners are generally not eager to see a team yanked out of Cleveland, but also not eager to fight a legal battle to keep it there. And several say they don't want to block a move because it would hurt their leverage in bids to get better stadium deals in their own cities.

Tagliabue's recommendation

With no clear consensus among the owners, it's likely that Tagliabue's recommendation will be decisive.

Though the owners have rejected his advice when he favored giving the television networks a rebate and wanted to retain instant replay, Tagliabue's views carry more weight when the owners don't have a personal interest in the matter or can't reach a consensus.

When the league expanded in 1993, most owners apparently didn't care where the teams were placed. They followed his recommendation to select Charlotte, N.C., and Jacksonville, Fla.

Last March, when Tagliabue recommended that the owners reject the move of the Los Angeles Rams to St. Louis, they voted 21-3, with six teams abstaining, to follow that recommendation.

Only the Bengals and Tampa Bay Buccaneers voted with the Rams in support of the move.

Less than a month later, after St. Louis officials threatened a $2.25 billion antitrust lawsuit, Tagliabue changed his mind and recommended they approve the move. Owners voted in favor, 23-6, with one abstention.

"The decision to have peace and not to have war was a big factor," Tagliabue said at the time.

The six teams that voted no were the New York Jets and Giants, Buffalo Bills, Pittsburgh Steelers, Washington Redskins and Arizona Cardinals.

Tagliabue's change of heart sent a message that he didn't want to fight a lawsuit to keep a team from moving. It was assumed that the era of franchise free agency had arrived in the NFL.

That's why when Modell negotiated his lease with the Maryland Stadium Authority, it included a clause that he would file a lawsuit if the owners rejected the move.

Cleveland's campaign

Though outrage was expected in Cleveland, it was assumed that the owners would rubber-stamp the move. That changed when the move caused a national uproar. It seemed to strike a chord among sports fans everywhere.

Even television commentators, sometimes seemingly an arm of the league's public relations department, have kept up a steady drumbeat of criticism.

On Sunday, for example, former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka, now an NBC commentator, called it the "worst thing that ever happened to the NFL."

Meanwhile, Cleveland has mounted a campaign to keep the team, deluging the league office and each team with faxes and letters pleading its case.

Bob Harlan, president of the Green Bay Packers, said he has been impressed by the campaign.

"There isn't a day that goes by that I don't hear from a [Cleveland] fan by fax, phone or mail. They're very articulate," said Harlan, who said he hasn't decided how he'll vote.

The protest obviously has had an effect even on owners who voted to let the Rams move.

Roger Headrick, president of the Minnesota Vikings, said he hasn't decided how he'll vote, but deplores the move. "We're killing our fan support," he said. "I'm feeling it here in Minnesota. Fans are saying, 'Who's really exempt if the Browns move? Who's next? Where is it going to stop?' "

Headrick also doesn't sound sympathetic to Modell's stadium and financial plights.

"I don't know what his problems are," he said. "If he has a stadium problem in Cleveland and he can't make money, he should sit down and talk it over. If he spent more than the [salary] cap, he shouldn't spend as much."

Wayne Weaver, owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars, said he'll vote to reject the move and is willing to fight the lawsuit unless Cleveland's $175 million stadium renovation program isn't viable.

"It's the morally right thing to do," Weaver said. "I think it's an extremely important message we need to send to all of our fans and cities that we care about the fans and we care about tradition. Our public image needs a little polishing right now."

Bills owner Ralph Wilson also said he'll oppose the Browns' move, though he's a longtime friend of Modell's. He said he has called Modell to tell him he's going to oppose the move.

"I said, 'Art, I want you to know I'm still your friend, but I don't agree philosophically with you,' " Wilson said. "I wanted to be upfront with him. It's such a storied franchise. I think the NFL has to start considering the fans."

Wilson said he's willing to fight a lawsuit on the issue.

"Maybe I'm too old-fashioned, but I think that somewhere along the line we have to take a stand," he said.

Dan Rooney, owner of the Steelers, is another longtime Modell friend who said he'll vote no.

Though he said he'll have to listen to all the information before making his decision official, Rooney has left little doubt that he opposes the move. The Pittsburgh-Cleveland rivalry has been one of the best in pro football. At the owners' meeting Nov. 7, a day after Modell's announcement, Rooney was close to tears as he talked about the Browns' possible departure.

Giants co-owner Wellington Mara said he will support the Browns' move only because the majority of the owners wouldn't take a stand on the Rams' move.

"When we let the Rams move, we ran up the white flag," he said. "I think by our actions, we forfeited our right [to block a move]."

Possible resolutions

With Wilson, Weaver and Rooney strong no votes and with the Oakland Raiders' Al Davis likely to abstain (his position is that franchises don't need permission to move), Tagliabue likely could round up eight negative votes to block the move if he recommends against it. Twenty-three of 30 votes are needed to approve.

But if Tagliabue recommends a negative vote, he could alienate the owners -- possibly in the majority -- who support the move.

A representative of the Houston Oilers described owner Bud Adams and Modell as "kindred spirits" who would support each other. Adams is attempting to move his team to Nashville, Tenn.

In any case, Tagliabue may decide to punt for now.

Though the owners are scheduled to vote Jan. 17, Tagliabue may seek a delay while the Browns are tied up in court in Cleveland over their lease at Cleveland Stadium. That trial is scheduled to begin Feb. 12.

Still, Modell contends he can't return to Cleveland now if the league tries to block his move.

Carmen Policy, president of the San Francisco 49ers, said: "I feel this situation cries out for a solution, a resolution that puts a team in Cleveland and one in Baltimore."

How does Policy think the league can reach that solution?

"I don't know," he said. "I'm flexible."

Other owners aren't so flexible. They want the Browns to stay in Cleveland, though it has been suggested that another team could move to Cleveland and be called the Browns.

Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt, who isn't taking a stand on the move, said he doesn't like that idea, however.

"That sounds kind of convoluted to me. I don't think that solves the problem to have a continual musical chairs deal," Hunt said.

Eventually, the owners will be faced with a vote and Tagliabue will make a recommendation.

Modell, who said he hasn't been lobbying the owners, said he can convince the owners and commissioner that he has a right to move when they hear his presentation.

Cleveland Mayor Michael R. White will make a presentation to the NFL finance and stadium committees on Jan. 4 in Atlanta, but Modell will meet with the committees the night before the Jan. 17 meeting.

"You have to lobby when you have nothing to sell," Modell said of why he's not lobbying in advance of the owners' meeting.

"They'll hear a factual presentation, not an emotional one from politicians running for re-election. They'll hear it loud and clear."

One NFL club official, who asked not to be identified, said Modell is a good speaker who could be very effective in making his case to the owners.

"He can be a spellbinder," the official said.

If Modell is to win over some of the skeptical owners, he may have to come up with a performance of a lifetime.

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