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Nothing Is Final About Sept. 15

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The Sept. 15 deadline looms.

In only 26 days--give or take another year or two--the NFL is going to pick between Los Angeles and Houston.

Another year or two? That’s right.

Around the country, L.A. has already been buried, the prevailing uneducated opinion being, “L.A. blew it.” But around the country, people think Californians are nuts, and they are the ones living in Green Bay and Philadelphia.

Although correctly deemed a foregone conclusion that L.A. will not meet NFL requirements for a successful deal on Sept. 15, or any day in the near future, there are now mounting indications that the NFL is still not prepared to abandon L.A.

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Houston wins, but still loses.

The NFL owners will not vote to award L.A. an expansion team in September--that’s now a given. And they will most likely announce they are awarding Houston a team to begin play in 2002 or 2003, asking the city to begin construction of a publicly funded stadium.

But read the fine print. The NFL will not specify what kind of team will begin play in Houston in 2002 or 2003.

That decision will be made in 12-18 months, leaving the door open for some troubled franchise to move to Houston, while L.A. is afforded more time to make itself presentable for an expansion team.

Cleveland set such a precedent. When Art Modell turned gangster, taking the money and his team to Baltimore, the NFL promised to place a team in Cleveland to begin play in 1999, prompting construction to begin on a new stadium.

But the league also said it would wait before announcing whether Cleveland would get an existing team or an expansion franchise, setting a deadline--and later missing it--to make such a decision.

Cleveland didn’t like it, worried that it might receive the warmed-over Colts or worn-out Bills, before celebrating the announcement it would receive an expansion franchise.

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At the same time, many NFL owners came to regret the decision to impose a deadline on themselves--never having liked the idea of being backed into a corner--but after doing so, the league now considers the entire Cleveland process to have been a rousing success.

The NFL owners, who cannot even agree on when they should meet to discuss L.A. and Houston, waffling now among Sept. 22, Sept. 29 and Oct. 6, could conceivably become so upset at being given the public cold shoulder by L.A. they could make the emotional decision to give Houston an expansion team.

But that’s not likely.

The league must still negotiate a detailed deal with Houston and set a franchise fee, and although it might be easy to muster 24 votes against L.A. now, gaining 24 votes for Houston--without first jacking up the franchise fee--will not be so easy.

“I don’t think we’ll see an immediate decision that’s automatic [to go to Houston],” Cowboy owner Jerry Jones told the Houston Chronicle. “I think what we’ll see is a period of time--more than is probably needed--where we say, ‘Hey, we tried to get the team in Los Angeles. Let’s try to get this thing done [with Houston] some time this year.’ ”

Jones made it clear he favors an expansion team in Houston, but then, for more than two years now, he has been urging the NFL to make room in L.A. again for the return of the Raiders. Remember, Jones spends a lot of time standing under the Texas sun.

“I want to [help Al Davis], not so much for Al but for the league,” Jones said. “We don’t need two teams up there [in the San Francisco Bay Area], and I think the answer to Los Angeles is that maybe it suits moving a team there.”

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Collectively, the NFL owners are not all that bright, but a few have correctly surmised that L.A. will not accept the return of the Raiders and will probably not play party to being used in years to come as leverage against acquiring better deals elsewhere. Houston, of course, doesn’t mind being the poor sap, having done it the last couple of years while the NFL has looked for a way to embrace L.A.

Giving Houston a team, but not declaring what kind of team will play there for another 12-18 months, is in the best interests of the NFL for three important reasons:

1. Teams like the Minnesota Vikings, Buffalo Bills, New Orleans Saints and Arizona Cardinals, which would like new stadium deals, would have a window of opportunity to threaten/blackmail the home folks into coughing up public funds for a new stadium or risk the team’s move to Houston.

2. A 12-18-month waiting period will put an end to businessman Robert McNair’s exclusive grip on Houston, and although the NFL is impressed with McNair, it will not allow him to dictate the terms of a deal in Houston. The league learned its lesson after having been forced by the trustees of Jack Kent Cooke’s estate to deal with Howard Milstein, eventually balking at his offer to buy the Redskins, and at the risk of litigation, turning to Daniel Snyder instead.

McNair’s exclusivity arrangement in Houston expires at the end of January, and although the NFL would like him to emerge as the team’s owner, it would prefer that others step forward and provide some financial competition, thus hiking the franchise fee.

This will upset McNair, who has played the waiting game with great aplomb. But after being reminded that Cleveland went to the highest bidder in bidding rigged to anoint NFL-favorite Al Lerner as owner, McNair probably will relent.

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3. The NFL desperately wants a team in Los Angeles, and would like 12-18 more months to work on a deal, leaving all options open, even another look at Chavez Ravine.

The league, oblivious to reality, still believes it will get public money in some form in L.A., leading to the NFL’s return.

Next month, in the NFL’s version of Groundhog Day--minus Bill Murray--the league’s expansion committee will consider issuing a proclamation declaring the Coliseum dead. This will return L.A. to Square 1, reviving possible stadium sites in Carson, Orange County, Hollywood Park and West Hollywood.

John Moores, owner of baseball’s San Diego Padres, has already approached the NFL about a stadium site near where the 405 and 5 freeways merge in Irvine. That ought to go over well in Houston: “Moores steals team from Houston,” where he made his home before moving to San Diego.

Man the crisis centers, there is no end to this story after all. Throw in Marvin Davis, Al Davis, and Davis Love III--just seeing if you’re still paying attention--and L.A. lives, the NFL deadline be damned.

Oh, the agony of victory: Another 12-18 months of NFL wrangling and whining, while small-town Houston gets slapped silly for its one glaring shortcoming--it’s just not L.A.

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NEW FUND LEAGUE?: City and state officials try a different approach to the Coliseum parking problem. B1

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