Craig: Vikings, NFL are past stage of bluffing

  • Article by: MARK CRAIG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 21, 2012 - 8:45 AM

Legislators enamored with playing chicken need only revisit the Browns' ugly departure from Cleveland.

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Governor Mark Dayton, left, and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell spoke to reporters after they met Friday at the Capitol to discuss the Vikings stadium.

The Vikings will move if they don't get a new stadium soon. That's how we need to interpret Friday's visit from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and Art Rooney II, head of the league's stadium committee.

Goodell, Rooney and Vikings owner Zygi Wilf didn't say that. They're just hoping that common sense finally pays a visit to Minnesota and its Land of 10,000 Procrastinating Politicians.

It's not a threat. It's reality.

When read between the lines, Friday's visit was a firm and possibly final notice that serious consequences could result if this problem is kicked any farther down the road than the end of the current legislative session.

"This is the time to get things done," Goodell said during a stop at the Star Tribune. "I've been here several times on the stadium front over the years. In 2006, they moved forward with a stadium for the Twins and the Gophers. We were asked to move to the next year. And it's now 2012."

He's right. It's time for our leaders to stand up, holster their political pointer fingers and vote.

Good or bad. Yea or nay. In or out. Just make a decision!

History shows that indecisive politicians have sent other NFL franchises packing. As a Northeast Ohio native and former Cleveland Browns beat writer, I lived it 17 years ago. I covered a storied franchise that nobody thought would move. Until it did.

The Browns' problems began in about 1992 when owner Art Modell and the city of Cleveland thought they had come up with a $125 million plan to renovate old Cleveland Stadium. Modell, who had taken over operation of the stadium when the city no longer could afford it, paid $70,000 for the plan to be drawn up and presented during a news conference.

When it came time for the news conference, Mayor George Voinovich and Indians owner Dick Jacobs didn't attend, which seemed odd. Turns out Jacobs had gone to Voinovich and told him the Indians wanted a new stadium and would move if they didn't get one.

The Indians got their beautiful new ballpark, which opened in 1994, and Modell lost his primary stadium revenue producer. Those closest to Modell say he was assured by Voinovich that the Browns would be taken care of in time.

Time ticked away, yet the only thing built in Cleveland was a basketball arena for the Cavaliers. Voinovich also became Ohio governor and turned his back on Modell because he didn't want to show favoritism at a time when Cincinnati also wanted a new stadium.

Voinovich also couldn't help behind the scenes with Mike White, his successor in Cleveland. Voinovich was a Republican. White was a Democrat. You know how that works.

Those closest to Modell say White made promises to help the Browns. But a series of deadlines were missed behind the scenes as Modell's debt skyrocketed.

The Browns went 11-5 in 1994. The feeling heading into the 1995 season was they needed a big-time receiver to reach the Super Bowl. Modell signed Andre Rison.

Modell went to five different banks before one would give him the $5 million he needed to pay Rison's signing bonus. That's when those closest to Modell knew things were getting ugly.

On Nov. 6, with the Browns off to a 4-6 start and preparing for a home game two days later, Modell announced that he had accepted an offer to move the team to Baltimore. The fans' outrage of emotions that ensued over the next several months is inexplicable to those who weren't there.

Advertisers immediately bailed, leaving the Browns no choice but to cover every sign in the stadium with black paint. The Browns lost six consecutive games after the move was announced but won their finale at home against the Bengals. It was a surreal moment as the game clock struck zero with no guarantee that the city would ever see another NFL game. Fans cried while using saws and hammers to hack away their seats and any other items they could find as keepsakes.

The Wilfs are more financially secure and business-savvy than Modell was. But even they can't go on forever making cash calls to their partners while playing in one of the worst revenue-producing stadiums in the league.

In two other ways, the situations seem eerily similar.

"I think every situation is unique, but I can understand that comparison," Goodell said. "The team was asked to step down to allow the baseball stadium to go through. And then [the politicians] continued to push it down the track. I think we've all learned our lessons that it's best to get these situations resolved as quickly as possible."

Politicians are a funny bunch. Shortly after Modell announced he was taking Baltimore's offer, the city of Cleveland tried to present him with a $175 million plan to refurbish Cleveland Stadium. When Mayor White showed up to present it, the Browns sent a security guard out to accept the package.

Three years later, the city that didn't have any money found a way to pay for a $349 million stadium for the expansion Browns. Thirteen years later, that expansion team remains a laughingstock with an 0-1 playoff record.

Is this really a path Minnesota wants to follow?

Mark Craig • mcraig@startribune.com

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