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A Covenant Broken : The bonds linking city and professional football team and fan are being increasingly sundered by owners whose only loyalty is to the dollar. Can Los Angeles help to reverse this trend?

November 26, 1995|Kevin Starr | Kevin Starr, a contributing editor to Opinion, is the State Librarian of California and a member of the faculty at USC. His "Endangered Dreams: The Great Depression in California" will be published this December by Oxford University Press.

Football LA faces a far more important challenge than the construction of a stadium and the acquisition of a professional football team for Los Angeles. It must also help reform--and redeem-- professional football in the United States.

That is a big order. During the past decade, U.S. professional football has dangerously detached itself from its civic and ethical foundations. Like professional baseball, professional football has become a pageant of cynicism, opportunism and greed. Like baseball, it is on the verge of destroying itself in the name of a falsely appropriated free-market theory. Worse, professional football, again like baseball, is on the verge of scandalizing its fans--the American public--by allowing long-lasting violence to the sense of community, ethics and identity that constitute the founding covenant of the sport.

Let's go back to the beginning. In comparison with baseball, professional football is an arriviste . It is a post-World War II phenomena, with special implications for the sociology and class structure of the United States. Before the war, football was an elite game. It belonged to colleges and universities. Only a small percentage of Americans could attend such institutions and thus enjoy a legitimate connection to the sport. Millions of other fans had to content themselves with being Subway Alumni. In the 1920s, Roman Catholic colleges and universities--Notre Dame, Fordham, St. Mary's College of California--were especially effective in creating loyalties among Subway Alumni, who themselves could not go to college but whose sons and daughters, grandsons, nephews and nieces were doing so.

In Los Angeles during this time, USC formed a civic relationship to its fans throughout the metropolitan region. In the 1920s and 1930s, the college functioned as a city-based, as well as a university-based, football team. In so doing, USC showed forth the possibilities of a new kind of football: one that would be city-based and sociologically inclusive. In the postwar era, a new variant of the sport--privately owned professional football teams--capitalized on the USC model.

It was a long, hard struggle. The San Francisco Forty-Niners, for example, played through the 1940s and 1950s in the high school-oriented Kezar Stadium. A crowd of 16,000 was considered a great success. Yet, something else was at work in these crowds, something of great importance for the eventual emergence of the sport. Professional football was speaking directly to the newly prosperous urban, blue- and white-collar classes, the majority of them non-college graduates, yet rising in prosperity and expectations along with the rest of the nation in the postwar era. By the late 1950s, the Los Angeles Rams were commonly playing in the Coliseum to crowds pushing 100,000, crowds who represented a sociological cross section of the city.

In the rise of city-centered professional football, powerful psychological, sociological and ethical bonds were formed. Professional football provided its fans a symbol of, and arena for, their personal and collective identities--as individuals, as groups, as citizens of a city. To follow the Cleveland Browns, for example, as the citizens of Cleveland so faithfully did for so many years, was not only to buy into the fortunes of a team--but to buy into the very idea of Cleveland as a transcendent community in time and one's place in it.

Nowhere was such an identification more important than in boys, young adult males and young men, for whom football focused and subsumed into benevolent channels aggression and the desire to identify with a brave and valiant peer group. In the case of the Oakland Raiders, this identity revealed its noir dimension. Oakland, after all, was a blue-collar and lower-middle-class town restive in the face of the pretensions of San Francisco, and their football team reflected this ambivalence. From the beginning, the outlaw image of the Raiders had the effect of encouraging crypto-outlaw behavior, if only as a matter of gesture, whether in Oakland, or Parking Lot 6 of the L.A. Coliseum.

Ironically, the Raiders, the team most psychologically necessary to its city and its people, was the first to violate the covenant that had been built up between cities and pro-football teams across 30 years of play. In 1981, Al Davis, defying Oakland, defying the National Football League, defying the ethical foundations of football itself, took the Raiders to Los Angeles in search of a better deal.

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