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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?

<i> 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. </i>

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.

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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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It took a decade for the implications of Davis’ betrayal to sink in, but other owners eventually got his message. Even as they schemed and negotiated, however, they knew they were doing something defiant of the founding covenant of the sport. If a city has built you a stadium, if the citizens of the city have bestowed on you their affection and identity, then you, the owner, at least until recently, owed the city something in return. But the Colts sneaked away from Baltimore in the early-morning hours before dawn. Art Modell double-talked Cleveland behind its back, conducting the concluding phase of his negotiations with Baltimore in a plane parked on a remote landing strip.

Modell’s betrayal of Cleveland underscores the current feeding frenzy in the NFL: Owners squeeze their cities (some would say blackmail) for bigger and better stadia and other amenities with the threat of moving elsewhere (Chicago to Gary, Ind., Cincinnati to Cleveland, Houston to Nashville, Seattle to Los Angeles); and cities, in turn, shamelessly structure multimillion-dollar packages that come at the expense of more fundamental services. St. Louis secures the Rams with a $260-million offer. Oakland secures the Raiders with a $223-million deal. Charlotte and the state of North Carolina craft a $237-million package to acquire the expansion Carolina Panthers. Jacksonville, Fla., issues more than $160 million in bonds to renovate the Gator Bowl for the expansion Jaguars.

The NFL owners, meanwhile, empowered by their monopoly, feed off themselves. The owners of the Jaguars paid a $205-million franchise fee to the NFL; the owners of the Panthers, $140 million. Ticket prices, understandably, continue to soar past affordability for the people, working and middle classes, who created pro football in the first place.

Which brings us to Football LA. Shall Los Angeles jump into this feeding frenzy? Shall Los Angeles try to seduce the franchise of some provincial city for whom its football team is a life or death matter? Or shall Los Angeles build its football team from within, defying the NFL in court, if necessary, so as to secure an expansion franchise without the payment of blood money to the NFL? More important, shall Los Angeles rediscover and reinvigorate those bonds of civic loyalty at the core of football fandom?

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Los Angeles comes to the question at great advantage. First, Los Angeles is not anxious about its identity. Should it secure an expansion team, the city would be doing professional football a favor. As former USC and Ram quarterback Pat Haden points out, Angelenos have plenty else to do on Sundays or Monday evenings--the mountains, the beach, the desert, amusement parks, etc.

Nor is Los Angeles intimidated by talk of state-of-the-art stadia. Dodger owner Peter O’Malley is ready to build such a facility at his own expense, provided that he can get an exemption, like H. Wayne Huizenga of the Miami Dolphins and baseball’s Florida Marlins got from the NFL, to own two professional teams in one city.

Nor is Los Angeles intimidated by the NFL. This is a big-bucks town, and it has the muscle to persuade the NFL to grant it an expansion team at reasonable rates. NFL owners, furthermore, know that if there is no professional football in Los Angeles, their sport is, by that very fact, in decline. Already, television ratings show a dramatic falloff in interest in metro-L.A. in professional football, now that the Rams and Raiders have gone.

So let Football LA call for a locally owned, locally recruited expansion team playing in a locally owned stadium. There are enough fine football players coming out of USC and UCLA, together with athletes from Southern California playing elsewhere in the country, to staff such a team. Let this new team play football in a distinctively Los Angeles style. It should be a little glitzy. It should express the emergent ecumenism of the region. It should play football the way the Forty-Niners play San Francisco football: in a style, that is, that expresses the distinctive personality of the city. Let the creation of this team, in other words--a creation from within, from local resources, a creation based upon true civic patriotism--be given top priority in the stalled RLA effort.

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In doing this, Los Angeles will not only have a team, it will help to restore professional football, ethically and emotionally, to the place where it belongs in the public culture of the United States. If professional football is allowed to destroy itself in fanatical pursuit of the dollar, we are one step farther along the path of decline in our American culture as we have come to know it. In ancient Greece, athletes competed for religion and glory. When Rome went into decline, ruthless gladiators, either mercenaries or slaves, hacked each other to death before debased and howling mobs.


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