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Congress Steps Off Sidelines in Sports Flap

Pro-football team relocations spark hearings

WHILE most football fans are focusing on the pre-game hype for this Sunday's Super Bowl in Arizona, football owners this week were turning their attention to a battle brewing on Capitol Hill.

On one side is the National Football League commissioner, big-city mayors, and a host of Cleveland, Chicago, and Houston fans who want to stop their hometown teams from moving to other cities.

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Their opponents are 30 well-heeled NFL team owners - some of whom are bucking fan loyalties in attempts to keep their franchises profitable.

Now, congressional lawmakers are stepping into the fray, offering a window on what happens when two of America's most closely followed professions tangle.

On Tuesday, NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue told the Senate Judiciary Committee that he wants Congress to give the league a limited federal antitrust exemption that would allow the NFL to block team moves.

When the NFL tried to stop the the then-Los Angeles Rams from moving to St. Louis, threats of billion-dollar lawsuits forced the league to back down.

This time the fuss is mostly over Cleveland owner Art Modell's plans to move the Browns to Baltimore.

Like most industries that have important legislation before Congress, Mr. Modell and other owners have been making substantial political donations in recent years. During the last six years, NFL team owners have directly contributed about $260,000 to congressional campaigns.

''These owners give money in such large amounts for one reason - to preserve the status quo,'' says Jay Youngclaus of the Center for Responsive Politics. ''Owners are at the mercy of Congress as it relates to the antitrust issue, and any legislative changes could mean a loss of millions to their bottom lines.''

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But political donations may not carry as much clout with lawmakers hearing from fans and taxpayers in their district.

To broaden support, Ohio lawmakers note that the move by the Browns to Baltimore could trigger more relocations. There is rampant speculation about either the Tampa Bay or Cincinnati team shifting to Cleveland or the league promising Cleveland an expansion franchise. The Houston Oilers owner has also announced plans to take the team to Nashville. And the Chicago Bears are being courted by Gary, Ind.

Hoping to prevent some of this team hopscotch is Sen. Mike DeWine (R) of Ohio. He has drafted legislation that would prohibit the use of federally tax-exempt financing or any other federal tax credits or deductions that benefit an NFL franchise seeking to move.

''There is no moral justification for having taxpayers subsidize a team's decision to break its word to a community and run out on them,'' says Mr. DeWine, whose bill would be retroactive so as to include the Browns. A new Browns stadium in Baltimore is to be financed through a tax-exempt bond issue. That is, interest that the bondholders earn would not be subject to federal income tax.

NOT surprisingly, there is strong opposition to DeWine's bill from Maryland lawmakers and congress members from other states seeking NFL franchises through tax-subsidy lures. ''The chances that Congress will do anything to upset the rights of owners to move their franchises to other cities is virtually nil,'' says a senior Judiciary Committee staff member.

But that isn't likely to stop some lawmakers from trying. Ohio Sen. John Glenn (D) introduced in November a so-called Fans Rights Act, which would exempt the NFL from antitrust regulations related to franchise moves and allow communities to keep team names.

On Feb. 6, House Judiciary chairman Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois plans to hold hearings to stop a move by the Chicago Bears to Indiana.

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