How Los Angeles Almost Ended Up Getting Russell Wilson in a Mayflower Truck

WHEEEEEEEEE, FOOTBALL IN LOS ANGELES!

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On Tuesday, NFL owners, who are perhaps the world’s most formidable agglomeration of elderly Caucasian gentlemen who possess lots and lots of money and are very good and laughing evilly, voted to finally, officially, and for reals send a professional football team that is not USC to Los Angeles. Of course, the NFL has been toying with the idea of moving to Los Angeles for years now, often using the threat of relocation to the nation’s second-largest media market as a big, scary stick in stadium negotiations with franchises located elsewhere. And while it was the Rams who ostensibly made the big jump, it was not the first team to actually make it to the elusive Southern California market: in one of the NFL’s most hilarious and all-but-forgotten footnotes, just under 20 years ago, the Seattle Seahawks’ then-owner Evil Ken Behring, without warning, PACKED THE TEAM OFFICES UP IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT AND DROVE THEM DOWN TO ANAHEIM. Seriously. The Baltimore Sun, whose detailed coverage of this faraway issue can be explained by the fact that its city was on the verge of cruelly stealing the Browns from Cleveland, has the full story.

Just one week before NFL owners are scheduled to vote on the Cleveland Browns’ proposed move to Baltimore, the Seattle Seahawks stunned the league by telling Seattle-area officials yesterday that they plan to move to Los Angeles this fall.

“It came out of the blue,” said Browns owner Art Modell, who said that Seattle owner Ken Behring had promised to vote for the Browns’ move, but hadn’t indicated he planned to move.

The development was surprising because the Seahawks don’t have a firm commitment for a new stadium in Los Angeles and they would be defying a league resolution giving all 30 owners control of the future of the Los Angeles market.

In an era of breaking Twitter reports, a sports news cycle without end, and high-profile, protracted negotiations over stadium funding, this seems equal parts nuts, audacious, and impossible, but it’s true! From the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (all emphasis mine):

Moving vans hauled equipment out of the team’s Kirkland headquarters on a Sunday morning. Players did their offseason workouts at the Rams’ old facility in Anaheim. Because Behring had ordered the closure of the team’s facility, the coaches and front-office staff were trying to do business from a Bellevue hotel.

Behring’s plan was halted when the NFL threatened to fine him $500,000 a day until he returned the Seahawks to Seattle, and after King County had filed lawsuits against him.

That’s amazing! Ken Behring used the cover of night to effectively kidnap a multimillion-dollar organization with hundreds of employees. As noted above, NFL officials cried foul and Seattle officials immediately threw lawsuit after lawsuit at the franchise, but it was not until Evil Ken finally sold the team to Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen, who also owned the Portland Trail Blazers and now partially owns the Seattle Sounders, that it became clear that the Seahawks were going to stick around in Seattle and have the time to foster the NFL’s most annoying fanbase for years to come.

I certainly remember the grainy local news footage of moving trucks pulling away from team headquarters, or at least I’m pretty sure I do, since to be honest all pre-HD television clips to me just sort of blend together as sort of one long, blurry, shot hopelessly devoid of meaning. But in any case, I did NOT remember wonderful little nuggets like this one from the PI‘s article, about one player who just decided, nah, not going to put up with this (emphasis in original):

One player didn’t buy into the motives for the move — Cortez Kennedy, a Pro Bowl defensive tackle and the NFL defensive player of the year in 1992.

Pointing out that the contract he signed was with the Seattle Seahawks and that the workout clause in that deal stipulated the sessions would be held at the team’s Kirkland facility, Kennedy refused to attend the workouts in Anaheim.

“I was just doing what I felt was the right thing to do,” Kennedy now says.

What a hero! Though somehow I doubt that Eric Weddle will show quite the same love to a Chargers organization that fined him and functionally suspended him for being a Good Dad and staying on the field at half during the Chargers’ last game to watch his seven-year-old daughter perform in the junior cheerleaders’ halftime show.

Twenty years later, St. Louis, San Diego, and Oakland lost the battle that Seattle happened to win. But Evil Ken’s chosen methodology for moving the Seahawks—abruptly and with almost no warning or explanation—stands in sharp contrast to the recent slow-burn maneuverings of the Rams, Chargers, and Raiders owners, all of whom have been simultaneously trashing their cities, demanding new stadiums, and openly courting Southern California officials for a long time. When the three teams made it official last week and filed simultaneous applications to relocate, it was the culmination of years of slimy, coldly indifferent jockeying for pole position. What is kind of surprising, though, is the absolutely TERRIBLE plan that they apparently decided was the best, most sensible way to resolve all of this! The Rams are officially headed to Los Angeles for next season, but what about the Chargers and Raiders? Emphasis mine:

NFL owners voted 30-2 Tuesday night to approve the relocation of the St. Louis Rams, ending a 21-year absence for the NFL in Los Angeles, the nation’s second-biggest television market. The owners also gave the Chargers a one-year option to join them if they reach an agreement with Rams owner Stan Kroenke to share his proposed stadium in Inglewood, near the L.A. airport.

What? So…the Chargers want to go, and they can go, and they might go, and they probably will go, but it’s not for sure yet, and they are going to just…figure out later? And in the meantime, they’ll be working as hard as they possibly can to leave? Uh, okay. So what happens if the Chargers decide to let the option lapse?

If the Chargers don’t exercise that option, the Oakland Raiders, the third team that applied for relocation, would then be given the opportunity.

This is amazing. Incredibly, the NFL managed to resolve years of uncertainty regarding these teams’  future with even MORE uncertainty: a dual continent option that allows two teams to walk away from their cities in the near future, but only if they decide that it’s convenient for them, TBD, we’ll get back to you. There are no real repercussions if the teams exercise the option, and no guarantees that they stay in their respective cities even if they don’t leave for Los Angeles after all.

For Oakland and San Diego, watching this get resolved over the next few years is going to be not even the least bit fun. The NFL’s “solution” is the same one you thought of when you were in college and were dating someone who you liked just fine, but one of you is about to graduate and neither of you wants to do long distance, so you both sort of uneasily agree to put an expiration date on your relationship, and you try to get along in the meantime and go to all the graduation parties together and shake hands with your friends’  proud parents without getting in fights that make everyone uncomfortable and cause one or both of you to leave in tears. That plan never, ever works works.

When a franchise insists on divorcing itself from a city by way of a lengthy, drawn-out fulfillment of the inevitable, it’s an unmitigated disaster. Twelve years after Evil Ken’s attempted coup via Mayflower truck, the NBA’s SuperSonics succeeded at what the Seahawks failed to do, leaving Seattle in the summer 2008. But unlike the Seahawks’ move, Seattle had been bitterly anticipating this for a long time. The Sonics’ ownership group, headed by Chris Christie’s long-lost brother Clay Bennett, first announced their intention to move the franchise in November of the previous year — incredibly, in the middle of an ongoing Sonics’ season! And while the fight over the team’s future began in earnest both in court and in newspapers, none of the teams’  fans had any idea how to feel, because no one knew exactly what outcome they were supposed to react to.

What’s your move at this point? Do you start boycotting the games, because, man, fuck this guy, and you won’t be lining his already well-lined pockets with any more of your dollars than he’s already taken? Or does that do more harm than good, because a fanbase’s collective self-imposed ban will reinforce the owner’s otherwise-flimsy arguments that the team doesn’t have enough support to sustain a franchise? Would it be better to just go to the games and cherish this last opportunity to see your team one more time? And if you go, do you cheer, as a last gesture of love and appreciation? After all, the players are still there, and they’re just doing their jobs. They are playing as hard as ever (notable exception: Jerome James), and they have nothing to do with this ugly mess. They should be cheered, right? Or do you go and boo loudly and lustily, because because you’re unwilling to support this sham of a season, and you’re okay with making the wrong-place-wrong-time players collateral damage to your message?  If you boo, will your righteous anger toward the ownership be held up as evidence that you don’t WANT the team? Will the owner even be there to hear you? Will he care?

In light of Tuesday’s announcement, Chargers and Raiders fans will soon have to figure out what they decide are the best answers to these questions (except for the question about whether the owner will care, because the answer is objectively “no”). In 2008, for the record, I went, I cheered, and I only cried a little bit, one time, not even that much, I am a functional adult. But even putting these questions to your fans in the first place is a pretty callous thing to do. Of course professional sports are a business, and franchise owners are in it because they hope to make money (even more money than they already have), not because they fervently want to please a fan base as a sort of benevolent patron saint of the masses of their cities’ constituents. In this light, taking the option to move in the near future may be a sound a business decision on the part of the Raiders and the Chargers. But experience shows that the process that the owners chose to eventually make that decision is bound to be painful, ugly, and in the end, exactly as disappointing as expected.

What did Rams owner Stan Kroenke have to say about this week’s finalized plan, particularly with respect to each team’s supporters?

We understand the emotions involved of our fans.

Nah. Losing your team is a bummer. But losing it slowly and inexorably, with even the most determined optimism eroding a little bit more each day and yet never quite reaching zero, is the worst way for it to happen. San Diego and Oakland should have just had Evil Ken’s top secret Mayflower vans swing by at midnight and get it over with.

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