THE NFL / BILL PLASCHKE : It Has Become a Vicious Circle

They have never moved a franchise.

They have never asked a governor for money or a mayor for land or a fan for the sort of loyalty that runs in one direction only.

Yet there are no greater examples of the reasons behind the NFL’s pending disintegration than two players, Andre Rison and Henry Thomas.

When trying to understand what has driven three teams to change cities in the last year, with a fourth--the Houston Oilers to Nashville, Tenn., expected to be announced in days--understand it starts with the product.


It starts with Rison, an all-pro wide receiver and free agent at the end of last season.

He wanted a contract that included $5 million in bonus money, payable immediately.

Enter Art Modell, owner of the Cleveland Browns, who felt Rison could take him to his first Super Bowl.

So he offered Rison a $17-million contract that included that $5-million check.

One problem. Modell didn’t have the $5 million. Before the days of free agency, he never needed it.

No problem. He borrowed it from a bank.

Big problem. This week he announced he is moving the team from Cleveland to Baltimore because, in part, his new city will build him a stadium that will allow him to pay that money back.

It also starts with Thomas, a standout free-agent defensive tackle last year with the Minnesota Vikings, who wanted to keep him.

One problem. They didn’t have the $4-million bonus he required.

No problem. The Vikings chose to be fiscally responsible and allowed him to sign with the Detroit Lions, who included the bonus in a $7.35-million contract.

Big problem. Without Thomas, the Viking defense stinks, the team probably won’t make the playoffs, the fans are angry and the franchise has dropped to 25th among the 30 teams in total revenue.

Things have gone so sour in Minnesota, Viking officials may soon be looking to be rescued by another Baltimore.

“This is what it has come to,” said Roger Headrick, Viking president. “Modell signs Rison, and it’s trouble. We don’t sign Thomas, and it’s trouble. What are we supposed to do?”

That is the precisely the question facing the league during its most troubling times since the days of the AFL-NFL wars.

The answer, it turns out, has only a little to do with greed and vanity.

It is mostly about a loophole in the labor agreement that owners claim is being slowly tightened around their necks.

A primer:

--As recently as the 1992 season, player movement was so restrictive that owners could remain competitive simply by drafting good players and paying them enough to keep them happy. There was no such thing as a bidding war.

--Under the new labor agreement of three years ago--written in part by a federal judge--players were suddenly granted freedom to peddle their talents. In exchange, they agreed to allow owners to have a salary cap. An even deal.

--But players and their agents soon realized they could avoid salary-cap restraints by being paid in bonus money, which was prorated over the life of a contract under the cap.

So while salaries remained stable, owners were forced to pay huge up-front checks for the right to pay the player that “measly” salary.

Soon, the league’s most valuable commodity was not quarterbacks but cold cash.

--Because of their revenue-sharing policies, the biggest source of cold cash available to owners comes from unshared monies associated with stadium luxury boxes and club seats.

Jerry Jones, Dallas Cowboy owner, has so many premium seats and corporate sponsors in Texas Stadium that he can afford to win the bidding for cornerback Deion Sanders for a bonus of nearly $13 million.

Art Modell does not have those advantages in Cleveland Stadium. So today, he has a new home in Baltimore.

It’s not a matter of losing money, owners say. It’s a matter of not having enough money to compete.

“And the only way to get that money, in today’s NFL, is to move into a revenue-producing stadium,” said Rich McKay, general manager of the soon-to-be-wandering Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The NFL owners have two choices.

They can shuffle teams to lucrative stadiums in smaller towns such as Nashville and Albuquerque, thereby resurrecting the USFL.

Or, they can beg the union to change the collective bargaining agreement to include signing bonuses in the salary cap with no proration.

But the union has already said no. And to force the issue would cause labor unrest when the contract expires in 1999.

What to do? Lamar Hunt, owner of the Kansas City Chiefs, has another question.

“Where in all of this is there any mention of fans?” he asked this week, his voice lost amid the thump of the warning drums.