PHOENIX -- Paul Tagliabue said it himself: "Perception is a complex thing to deal with." It sure is, when one minute the NFL commissioner all but proclaims a league renaissance, and the next minute reporters start lining up to ask whether their city will be next to lose its team.
The questions kept coming yesterday, from Cleveland, Houston and Baltimore, from Seattle, Phoenix and Los Angeles. Master of evasion that he is, Tagliabue declined to address specifics, saying that would be "more appropriate for another occasion."
Like when? The NFL soon might feature teams in Indianapolis, Nashville, Tenn., and Hartford, Conn., but none in L.A., Houston and Boston. Commissioner Tagalong is starting to make Bud Selig look like Abraham Lincoln, yet his double talk continues, as does his rewriting of history.
Tradition. History. Loyalty. These were the concepts Tagliabue kept invoking at his Super Bowl news conference yesterday, concepts embraced by the NFL "for three-quarters of a century," concepts that are lost in the new world order he neither understands nor controls.
It took Jerry Izenberg of the Newark Star-Ledger to ask, if the league is so committed to tradition, why didn't it award Baltimore an expansion franchise in 1993? And, by leaving the city without a team, doesn't the league bear some responsibility for the Browns' move?
Tagliabue responded by congratulating Izenberg as one of 18 writers to cover every Super Bowl -- "the kind of tradition and loyalty we're talking about." He then conceded that Baltimore's expansion package "was probably on top of the list in terms of revenue potential," but said, "the expansion process did not turn on dollars."
Let's get this straight. Baltimore had the cash. Baltimore had the tradition. And still, it wasn't good enough. Tagliabue, fondly recalling his days as Sun King, said the owners wanted to expand "the reach of the NFL" to Charlotte and Jacksonville. And so, Memphis, St. Louis and Baltimore got shut out.
"As it turns out, a lot of the relocation activity has focused on Tennessee, St. Louis and Baltimore," Tagliabue said, marveling at his own powers of analysis. "Had we put expansion teams hypothetically in Baltimore and St. Louis, we'd still have a very similar issue. Just the names of the players would be different."
That isn't necessarily true -- Charlotte owner Jerry Richardson had said repeatedly that he would not attempt to buy an existing team, and who knows if Jacksonville could have lured one without a new stadium. At least if the NFL had gone into St. Louis and Baltimore, it would have done the right thing.
Instead, it created an environment for the mother of all franchise shifts. Tagliabue pledged yesterday that the NFL "would not abandon the Cleveland fans." But he also said the league would not expand this decade, and again dismissed the idea of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers moving to Cleveland.
No expansion. No movement. How else can Cleveland get a team? Tagliabue later did an about-face on expansion, saying, "I'm not ruling out any solution." But it seems clear the league wants Cleveland to build a new stadium. Only then would it promise the city another franchise.
Of course, Tagliabue wouldn't admit to that. In fact, he suggested that Cleveland wants to build a new stadium, a development that surely will come as news to Browns owner Art Modell, who never would have left if that was made clear.
Now, it's true the city can devote its $175 million package to stadium renovations or a new facility. But after building a new ballpark, new arena and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a new football stadium was the last thing anyone had in mind. Modell never asked for one, probably believing it would never happen.
Tagliabue said he wants to "get it done fast" for Cleveland, rather than make the city wait 12 years like Baltimore. Cleveland should not be fooled by such talk. Tagliabue's idea of "fast" is probably the two or three years it would take to build a new stadium. In his mind, that would be a triumph.
Teams come, teams go, but Tagliabue said, "We recognize loyalty probably to a degree that has no parallel in sports." He's right in one sense. The NFL figures its fans are so loyal, it can charge them for permanent seat licenses. Call it extortion, if you must. To Tagliabue, it's good old-fashioned American ingenuity.
"What we're doing is basically avoiding the use of tax money, and asking fans supporting the team to pay user fees," he said. "That's a large part of what's going on in America today -- the shifting away from the use of scarce tax revenues for entertainment, and the shifting toward user fees."
It might be going on in America, but it's not going on in his own league. The Browns will sell PSLs and play in a publicly financed stadium in Baltimore. The Rams got the same deal in St. Louis. So, rest assured, will the next team in Cleveland.
As usual, Tagliabue deflected responsibility, saying, "that was a decision made by public officials in Baltimore." Who is he kidding? The NFL put Baltimore in that position. The NFL ignored tradition, history and loyalty. The NFL started all the trouble.
No wonder Tagliabue finds perception such a complex thing to deal with.
+ Everyone knows the reality.