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L.A. Won't Get Suckered Into This Game

Pro football: Inglewood race track owner is a new player in the NFL bid to get a stadium built here with public money.

January 12, 1998|FRANK del OLMO | Frank del Olmo is assistant to the editor of The Times and a regular columnist

When it comes to propaganda, nobody can beat the National Football League.

The Super Bowl game will be held in San Diego in two weeks, so the NFL's public-relations juggernaut is in high gear. And it is shamelessly abetted by network television, eager to show even mediocre pro football games to fill a few hours of weekend air time. As a result, the NFL can put a positive spin on even the most outrageous news.

Recently, for instance, the owner of the San Francisco '49ers, Edward J. DeBartolo Jr., has been canonized not just in the Bay Area, where some hometown favoritism is understandable, but also on the TV networks that carry NFL games. Why? Because he agreed to turn over control of the '49ers to others while he fights an expected federal indictment for bribery!

What network TV has chosen not to dwell on is that DeBartolo made lots of the money he spent making the '49ers a winning team through legalized gambling. He owns casinos in several states, and the anticipated bribery charges in Louisiana stem from his attempt to get a riverboat gambling license there.

You won't find details of DeBartolo's gambling interests in NFL press releases, even though his team made the playoffs for the Super Bowl. The NFL likes to pretend it doesn't approve of gambling--especially betting on its games.

But we in Los Angeles should be less concerned about DeBartolo's gambling enterprises than those of R.D. Hubbard, the principal owner of Hollywood Park race track in Inglewood and an adjacent card club. Since Los Angeles lost its two NFL teams three years ago, Hubbard has been the dark horse (an apt term, in this case) in the race to bring a new NFL team to town.

Hubbard could win that contest a lot more easily than many realize.

Every one of Hubbard's competitors for an NFL franchise is likely to run up against public opposition to building an expensive new football stadium in Los Angeles, especially if any public funds are to be spent on the project.

Hubbard is dealing with a smaller and more compliant city, Inglewood (population 114,600). So if he can find the money to build a football palace on Hollywood Park property--and cost estimates for such a project start at $300 million--the NFL won't spend a lot of time worrying about his gambling ties.

What the NFL's propagandists would then have to face is an issue that they prefer to ignore whenever a new Los Angeles football stadium is discussed: street crime.

Inglewood is not exactly the safest community hereabouts. In fact, it can be downright dangerous even for the most innocent. In November, a 7-year-old boy was killed in an apparent gang shooting at a playground around the corner, literally, from Hollywood Park.

I bring this up not to denigrate Inglewood or the overwhelming majority of law-abiding people who live there, but to point out the towering hypocrisy of those NFL owners who privately insist that they will never put a new team in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum because the neighborhood is too dangerous.

That is a lie. It is, in fact, a Big Lie--an untruth repeated so often that it is accepted despite evidence to the contrary.

The evidence, as Los Angeles Police Department statistics consistently show, is that the South-Central neighborhood around the Coliseum is no more dangerous than many other parts of town--and a good deal safer when major events are at the Coliseum. Last fall, for instance, the LAPD recorded only four crime incidents (all automobile related) around the Coliseum during USC football games.

In truth, there is only one thing that makes Inglewood more attractive to the NFL for a stadium site than Los Angeles. A small city government is considered more likely to ante up public money.

The league wants public funds spent on any new home for a Los Angeles team, and the more the better. But Los Angeles taxpayers are in no mood to put more money into the Coliseum, a perfectly good stadium that was refurbished, to the tune of more than $100 million, after the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

If Los Angeles can force the NFL to put a new franchise here without a significant expenditure of public money, it will set a bad precedent. It would call into question stadium deals in San Francisco, San Diego and Seattle, where DeBartolo and other millionaire NFL owners convinced local taxpayers to subsidize their lucrative private businesses. And team owners in a dozen other NFL cities--including two other Super Bowl hopefuls, Denver and Pittsburgh--will be trying to pull off similar heists in the next few years.

This is one more instance where the NFL needs Los Angeles more than we need them. And it's one more reason the movers and shakers in the Los Angeles area--including public officials in Inglewood--must not hand over precious tax dollars to a bunch of well-heeled hustlers.

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