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NFL Could Take a Lesson From Soccer

Los Angeles: A tourney that raised money for hurricane victims showed how one sport puts people above money.

November 22, 1998|FRANK del OLMO | Frank del Olmo is an associate editor of The Times and a regular columnist

Two big sports events took place in town last week. While unrelated, both illustrate how fun and games can help enhance social cohesion and community pride even in a sprawling and diverse metropolis like Los Angeles. And they got me wondering, yet again, whether we really need--or even want--a new National Football League team.

The event most Angelenos paid attention to was the annual college football game between USC and UCLA, played Saturday in the Rose Bowl. About 90,000 people were expected to attend.

That is a bigger crowd than attended a futbol tournament held at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. But the soccer crowds were respectable: 22,000 on Tuesday night and 28,000 on Wednesday. The turnout would have been even bigger, except the soccer matches were hurriedly organized--literally in just a week.

The round-robin tournament involved the national teams of Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras playing benefit matches to raise money for CARE, the international relief agency, to help victims of Hurricane Mitch, which ravaged Central America last month.

In an era when so many professional athletes seem like spoiled children, the selflessness of the Latin American soccer stars was inspiring. They played in the L.A. tournament for free, so that every cent raised among their many fans and compatriots here would go to people in need. "It is an honor to be here," said Mexican superstar Luis Hernandez.

Mexico's pro soccer league even delayed its season-ending playoffs for a week so Hernandez and other marquee players could travel to Los Angeles for the games. It's hard to imagine the NFL, which didn't cancel its games on the 1963 weekend after President Kennedy was assassinated, being so charitable.

One of the reasons soccer generates such intense loyalty among its fans is that they closely identify with players like Hernandez, who rose to the pro ranks after apprenticeships with minor league and even youth league teams.

For sports fan in this country, the closest comparison would be the way fans of high school and college football teams root for them, carrying hometown or old school loyalties from one generation to the next. And despite how the NFL saturates TV, pro football is really not America's "new" national pastime. The football that generates the most intense fan loyalty in this country is the brand played in high schools and colleges across the land, epitomized by the rivalry between USC and UCLA and countless other schools.

That is why sports fans in Los Angeles cared about USC versus UCLA long before the Cleveland Rams moved here in 1946, or the Oakland Raiders came south for a temporary sojourn in 1982. Now that both teams have moved on, it is why the attitude hereabout is "good riddance."

Which is not to say Angelenos are unsympathetic to efforts by several local business and political leaders to bring a new NFL franchise to town. Indeed, the persistence and creativity that developer Edward Roski Jr., City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas and the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum Commission have shown in their campaign to woo the NFL is admirable. And the design they came up with for a modernized Coliseum is truly impressive. In the best news of all for taxpayers, the public investment in Roski's proposal (the cost of land and infrastructure improvements) is already paid for.

Unfortunately, in the bidding for the next NFL franchise, our rival is Houston, the biggest city in football-mad Texas. Civic leaders there, who should really know better, have fallen all over themselves to raise $195 million in public money to build the NFL an all-glass stadium with a retractable roof. That is the kind of tackiness and largess that impresses NFL owners, who seem to think they provide a vital public service.

Any smart politician or business leader can tell you that taxpayers in Los Angeles simply are not going to spend that kind of money. We will not tolerate using public funds to help a private, multibillion-dollar enterprise like the NFL. When it comes to charity, we'd sooner give to our local schools and colleges or to storm victims in Central America.

So don't count on Los Angeles outbidding Houston for the next NFL franchise. But don't feel bad about it, either. We have plenty of big sports events here already, and they are far more meaningful to this community than the mercenary brand of football played by the NFL.

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