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Against NFL, L.A. Can’t Move the Ball

The symposium beckoned its guests with the title, “Are You Ready For Football?”

I am, but they’re not.

Not even close.

Not this year. Not in three years. There is a growing possibility of, not in your lifetime.

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A daylong media conference sponsored by the Los Angeles Sports and Entertainment Commission Thursday dealt with “The future of NFL football in Los Angeles.”

I can now say, with great confidence, that there is none.

Seven hours of more confused chatter than a referees’ huddle resulted in only one undeniable conclusion:

The future of NFL football in Los Angeles can’t be too great when they choose to debate it in a hotel in Santa Monica.

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Other than that, every fact here was up for grabs, a loose ball squirting from sweaty palm to sweaty palm, from an NFL owner to a Los Angeles city councilman to neighborhood types who left the hotel convinced football was never coming back.

The situation is so chaotic Al Davis even sent two Raider representatives, but Pat Haden said, “I don’t think the Raiders would be welcome here.” And many in the room silently shook their heads in agreement.

When or if football returns, the first game will be fortunate to contain the dazzling open-field running witnessed here Thursday.

Take Jerry Richardson, owner of the Carolina Panthers, who said, “The NFL could, in fact, get 23 votes to play in Los Angeles in the Los Angeles Coliseum if all the components are in place.”

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Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas had not completed his cartwheel when Richardson added that the proposed Houston franchise--Los Angeles’ competition for 2001--was still far ahead.

"[Houston is] 95% of the way to having the kind of proposal that we can take to the membership,” he said.

And Los Angeles? Richardson paused. And paused. And paused.

“Uh, L.A. is not quite as far along,” he said.

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It didn’t take a mathematician to figure out that he meant we are, uh, zero percent of the way.

What was supposed to be a look into the future was, instead, a trip into the past. To the summer of 1995. To the precise moment that both the Rams and Raiders left town.

We are in the same place now as we were then. No widely accepted stadium plan. No single strong owner. No leaguewide respect. And, oh yeah, no mayor.

The most important figure Thursday was the one who didn’t show, Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, who could be blowing a darn good chance at an easy legacy.

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One name, one voice, one vision. Thursday’s verbal aerobics proves that this is what Los Angeles’ divided and conquered forces need. Riordan would be as good a symbol as anyone.

It worked in Cleveland, which will rejoin the league next season thanks to the tireless whip of a mayor named Michael White.

Our guy? He is as invisible now as when the Raiders walked through him on their way out of town.

Riordan had breakfast Thursday with Richardson. But he apparently hasn’t been doing much of anything else with the NFL, judging from Richardson’s answer to a question comparing White and Riordan.

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Richardson paused. And paused. And paused.

“I would say, uh, no, he hasn’t been like Mayor White in Cleveland,” he said.

Not that having Riordan organize local leaders and determine one site and finance plan by the end of his term in 2001 is guaranteed to work, but . . .

It’s the best chance we have. With the NFL planning to expand to one more team perhaps as soon as next year after Cleveland begins play, it may be the last chance we have.

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After three empty football seasons here, everyone knows what won’t work.

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The return of football will not come at the behest of the fans.

You are too smart for that. You will not beg the NFL to allow you to help support rich guys whose teams you can already watch on TV for free.

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Some of Thursday’s panelists, however well-intentioned, illustrated a basic lack of understanding of this fact.

Richardson showed a photo of a Carolina fan and his young son, the boy’s face painted blue.

“This man works at Honeywell . . . the Panthers are his life . . . how do you put a value on that?” Richardson asked.

That is a noble small-town perception. But around here, that would only draw sympathetic stares.

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If a professional football team is his life, we think, he has led a very sad life indeed. And what’s he doing to that poor kid?

Given a nice stadium and a fun team, the fans here will fill it up for years.

But until those two things show up, they aren’t going to sweat it.

They’ve never staged a letter-writing campaign to build a cineplex or museum or theme park, and they aren’t going to start now.

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The return of football will not come at the behest of partisan politicians.

Ridley-Thomas has fought a good fight for the Coliseum, building it from an irritating speck in the NFL’s eye to something the league is starting to see.

With other good Los Angeles people now behind the deal--from Alan Rothenberg to Pat Haden--there is now at least a remote possibility that the owners will change their mind if the money works.

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But only if Ridley-Thomas, and others whose sharp words divide, will get out of the way and follow one name, one voice, one vision.

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The return of football will not even come at the behest of rich potential owners.

We have plenty of them, but the NFL is reluctant to give a team to somebody who wants to pay for it himself. One bad turn in the economy, and somebody starts selling defensive ends.

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The league knows this town will never support an owner with taxpayer contributions--does the phrase “Staples Center” ring a bell?--but it is counting for some other form of public support, such as personal seat licenses.

If even a minuscule percentage of the new team’s fan base purchased the expensive little suckers, it would be enough to build or renovate a stadium.

But there first must be a site. An owner. A belief.

The truth is, we don’t need the NFL, and it does not need us. But everyone seems to agree, if done right, it certainly would be nice.

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Which brings us back to the mayor, perhaps the only man in town who could help us obtain a team without selling our souls.

In Richard Riordan’s time here, he has been a builder, a provider, a caretaker. Now we need him to be a quarterback.


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