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Tagliabue Is on the Spot in Browns’ Move : Pro football: There is reason to think that the commissioner is against the abandonment of Cleveland. But ask him and you get either end of conversation or the stock quote: ‘We’re reviewing all the options . . .’

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Paul Tagliabue is on the spot. In the two weeks since the Cleveland Browns announced they would move to Baltimore, public opinion has been almost entirely against it.

So are the NFL’s guidelines for moving, which among other items require a team to prove it lacks fan support at home and has no prospects for improving outdated stadium facilities.

Cleveland has been drawing 70,000 fans a game for 25 years and its voters just approved a tax expected to provide $175 million to improve Cleveland Stadium. Even in this era, $175 million will pay for more than just clean bathrooms.

But Tagliabue, who used to be the NFL’s antitrust lawyer, also knows that the NFL is almost sure to lose in court if it turns down the move -- it already rejected the Rams’ move to St. Louis, then reneged.

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There is reason to think that the commissioner is against the move.

There is reason to think almost everyone in the league office is against it.

But ask Tagliabue and you get either end of conversation or the stock quote: “We’re reviewing all the options and the factors and we’ll make our decision when the time comes.”

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The time will come in about seven weeks, in mid-January, the Tuesday after the two conference title games. That’s when the owners will vote on whether to sanction Art Modell’s move.

But about the only way they’d turn it down is if Tagliabue strongly recommends against it, lawsuits be damned.

Will that happen? Tagliabue insists there are many factors to be considered before he makes his decision, including that huge negative fan reaction against it -- in Cleveland and everywhere else.

But ...

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“Our object always is to stay out of court,” Tagliabue, a lawyer, said.

That’s the crux. Court precedents, starting with the Raiders’ move to Los Angeles in 1982, indicate that the NFL will lose. So whatever Tagliabue the commissioner’s heart tells him, Tagliabue the lawyer knows better.

Here’s another way to look at it.

There are 23 votes needed to approve the move.

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An informal survey of the 30 owners indicates that if the vote were held now, 18 teams would almost surely vote for it, two more probably would, five more would be on the fence. And Al Davis and the Raiders would abstain, as they almost always do on any vote.

Only four would surely vote against it -- Buffalo, Kansas City, New England and Washington.

Many of those votes were swayed by Modell’s emotional appeals at the meeting in Dallas two weeks ago, when the owners heard only his side despite appeals by Mayor Michael White of Cleveland to address the group.

But if Tagliabue came out strongly against it, it could swing those on the fence plus teams like Green Bay and Minnesota that would now vote for the move.

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Examples:

-- When word of the move first surfaced, there was probably a majority against it. Even those who supported it went out of the way to reassure their own fans, like the Chargers’ Alex Spanos, who said: “I don’t see how Art can turn down the deal he got, but I’ll never move from San Diego.”

-- After Modell’s move, rumors resurfaced in Philadelphia that Jeffrey Lurie, the movie producer who bought the Eagles two year ago, might move the team to Los Angeles. Lurie, who is looking for a new stadium, quickly recognized the public mood and reassured fans in Philadelphia that the team would stay in the area.

-- It’s hard to cite the league guidelines for the move. The team has drawn consistently well and has been a showcase franchise for 50 years in a hotbed of football, northern Ohio. “I know well what it means because I grew up in Youngstown,” says Carmen Policy, president of the San Francisco 49ers. “It’s a real institution.”

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But these days, institutions are second to money, and Modell apparently has convinced his fellow owners that he needs the money that Baltimore will provide him.

So 79-year-old Wellington Mara, co-owner of the New York Giants, NFL patriarch and one of Modell’s closest friends in the league, becomes a key player. He’s torn between friendship and league spirit -- Modell, a native New Yorker, remains one of the largest season-ticket holders at Giants’ game.

So the day after the move was announced, Mara was reminiscing about the Browns-Giants rivalry in the ‘50s.

“It seemed,” he said, “like every time we played them there was a title on the line. I felt bad enough when they switched to the AFC and we only played them once every few years. This seems unreal.”

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But Mara was one of two owners -- the Jets’ Leon Hess was the other -- whom Modell informed of the move before it leaked out. And he strongly indicated that in this case -- and this case alone -- he would put friendship ahead of long-time league loyalty.

Tagliabue could give Mara an out.

A native of Jersey City, N.J., the commissioner also talks fondly of the New York-Cleveland rivalry he followed as a boy. He is well aware of the anger, some of it in his own office, toward Modell’s move -- one league official said the Cleveland owner had undone in one stroke the good he had done in his first 35 years in the league.

But it comes down to this.

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Will Paul Tagliabue, the fan, rule with his heart?

Or will Paul Tagliabue, the lawyer, recall the rulings of Harry Pregerson (Raiders vs. NFL), David Doty (Freeman vs. the NFL), and others?

If he does, he’ll submit to what he perceives as legal reality ...

And the Browns will move to Baltimore.

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