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Stopping Sports Terrorism

October 11, 1987

American cities and states should mount a massive counter-terrorism campaign. They are constantly being held hostage by the magnates of professional sports franchises.

If team owners begin to feel neglected or notice a spot of rust here and there in the stadium, all they need to do is to start to whisper about moving. Local officials will start turning handsprings to make the owner happy. Other cities will start their money machines churning to entice the franchise to their town. There is a belief out there, after all, that a major American city cannot be a major American city without a big league football or baseball.

The result is that hundreds of millions of dollars are spent in keeping teams where they are or in trying to get them to move to someplace else. This money, of course, is taxpayer money, or public financing of some sort. The Los Angeles Raiders plan to move to Irwindale for $90 million. But the award for capitulation to sports terrorism now belongs to Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer and the Maryland Legislature.

At Schaefer's pleading, the 1987 Legislature worked out a $200 million financial deal to build not one, but two stadiums: one for baseball and one for football.

Past legislatures had appropriated millions to fix up Baltimore's existing Memorial Stadium, but while Schaefer was mayor, Robert Irsay sneaked away with his football Colts in the dead of night anyway and Washington lawyer Edward Bennett Williams refused to sign anything more than a year-to-year lease for his American League Orioles.

Forty-five thousand Maryland residents signed petitions seeking a referendum on the giant stadium plan, confident that voters would reject it at the polls in 1988. But the state's highest court recently upheld the plan on a tenuous legal technicality. Financing of the plan would include an annual $1-million grant from the city of Baltimore and $16.4 million a year from special sports lotteries. The new lotteries, of course, will compete with the regular state lottery, whose sales already are lagging.

Now Baltimore is in the running with Oakland, Memphis, Jacksonville and Phoenix for a new NFL franchise, feeling it has the moral advantage because of the manner in which Irsay took the Colts to Indianapolis. That is no guarantee of getting one, however. Meanwhile, 30 miles down the road, Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke is complaining about the condition of RFK Stadium and wants Washington to build him a new sports palace. Domed, of course.

There are several possible responses to sports hijacking. One is for cities and states to refuse to pay ransom to any sports team. Congress could order the NFL and major league baseball to grant a franchise to any city that wanted one. Or, perhaps the wealthy team owners could be made to build their own stadiums, which are after all places of business.

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