Put sports, politics and law together and you've got farce. Put six bills before Congress -- them dealing with the flashpowder problem of pro teams jilting one city to go to another -- and you combine the worst of all three worlds.
Should we, for instance, establish a federal arbitration board to rule on franchise relocation disputes? What next? A Department of Toys?
Should we pass a law forcing both the NFL and major league baseball to expand and then tell them which cities to pick?
Both of those notions are in a bill put forth by Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.).
Should we have a "bad actor" law that gives the NFL the right to kick out one of its owners on the basis of a simple majority vote of the other owners? How long would Leonard Tose and, perhaps, Al Davis last?
This notion is part of a bill put forward by Sens. John Danforth (R-Mo.) and Tom Eagleton (D-Mo.). By similar logic, why not have a law that lets department store owners vote their competition out of existence?
This week at the Senate Judiciary Committee's hearings, Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (R-Ohio) heard enough of such talk.
"The nation faces a $200 billion deficit. The arms race is hot and unemployment is up," he said. "Why are we holding hearings on sports teams moving from one town to another?
"The marketplace is the best way to decide these things. Government regulation only leads to more regulation. Some of the most successful business people in the U.S., and some of the most ardent supporters of this administration, are owners of NFL teams. They say, 'Keep government out of business, except when it affects me.' Then they all yell, 'Congress, get in and regulate us.'
"Let's get Congress out of the business of football . . . Let 'em fight it out . . . Fans would benefit from real competition. But the real benefit would be on Capitol Hill, where we could get back to unimportant issues such as war and peace."
Metzenbaum, who went on to lambaste almost every congressional and Supreme Court decision on sports back to Oliver Wendell Holmes, might have the right curmudgeonly point of view, but he won't have the last word. They're wheeling the windbags up to Capitol Hill these days by the wagonload.
It's enough to make you give up reading "The Far Side" and turn to the Congressional Record for comic relief.
This week, New Jersey Generals owner Donald Trump testified that pro football teams "have an almost religious meaning to their cities."
Trump added that he suspected "two monopolies are combining -- the NFL and the major TV networks" to squeeze out the USFL. "A network would prefer showing fly fishing from Nicaragua before they'd risk angering the NFL by giving the USFL a contract."
Perhaps the highlight to date was expert witness Howard Cosell haranguing a hearing room full of senators until, finally, Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) said, "Judge Cosell, you weren't asked to come here to give us a law school examination."
Everybody's mad and everybody's got a solution.
Danforth thinks that pro sports leagues ought to be able to block one of their teams from moving to another city. For instance, the St. Louis Cardinals (NFL) or the Kansas City Kings (NBA), who've said they might like to move out of Danforth's state.
Danforth's bill calls for the NFL, NBA, NHL and MISL to set up criteria in 13 categories that would measure whether a team could pull up roots. The leagues would set up guidelines as to what constituted an acceptable stadium or sufficient public support or whatever. A team, if it still wanted to fight for the right to move, could go to court and argue about those 13 yardsticks.
"The law in these areas is so confused today," one NFL lawyer testified, "that this (bill) would be just another license to litigate."
A bill introduced by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) also would wish to set up specific criteria to measure whether a team was playing in an acceptable stadium and whether fan support merited keeping the team in that town. The Specter bill would apply only to the NFL. Court cases and endless wrangling over terms like "sufficient support" probably would be inevitable.
The most interesting bill by far has been introduced by DeConcini and is, basically, the NFL's answer to how to return to pre-Davis sanity.
The NFL wants a sliver of what baseball already has -- an antitrust exemption. Baseball has total exemption; football wants exemptions in the areas of franchise movement and revenue sharing.
The NFL would settle for a system analogous to baseball's, in which a team needs three-fourths of the votes in its own league and a majority in the other league to be sold or moved.
Of the available bills, DeConcini's is simplest and best. However, by giving total power to the owners, it could leave cities powerless. Just as Washington had no recourse in the courts when the Senators twice left town, future NFL towns might just have to rely, as DeConcini says, "on the collective wisdom of team owners who have experience and expertise."
Relying on the collective wisdom of sports owners -- especially when the well-being of a fellow owner is at stake -- is a good way to get a sharp stick in the eye.
The core of the problem probably is insoluble. There are far more boom towns, desperately hungry for big-time pro sports (and the patina of being major league that goes with it), than there are available teams. So, for the foreseeable future, there will always be a Phoenix or Indianapolis or Denver that will offer exorbitant enticements to get somebody else's team.
Perhaps the best way to ensure franchise stability and decent conduct by owners is a method that no bill can touch.
If you don't want the problems created by a Tose, an Irsay or a Davis, then don't let 'em in to start with.
Can this be done?
Certainly. Baseball, under Bowie Kuhn, managed the trick. When Kuhn talked about the "integrity of the game," his first concern was screening new owners and keeping out what he considered to be undesirables. And he did it.
A bad owner can't sneak out the back door with a franchise under his arm if you never let him in the front door.