As a sequel to my earlier post, “The Baltimore Orioles Were Never the Browns!,” in which I was critical of the moves of the Brooklyn Dodgers to Los Angeles and the New York Giants to San Francisco, I want to cite another egregious example of the betrayal of a community by the owner of a sports franchise.
I’m referring to the infamous (in the eyes of Baltimore football fans) Robert Irsay, the owner of the former NFL Baltimore Colts, who stealthily moved the organization lock, stock, and barrel, out of Baltimore in the wee hours of the morning of March 29, 1984. Fifteen Mayflower moving vans had arrived late the night before in order to accomplish the move to Indianapolis before the State of Maryland could seize control of the team under an “eminent domain” bill passed overwhelmingly by both the Senate and the House of Delegates of Maryland and signed by Maryland Governor Harry Hughes later that same day. The vans departed by different routes, so that they could not be intercepted by the Maryland State Police.
The mayor of Indianapolis, Bill Hudnut, whose deputy had negotiated the deal with Irsay, was elated by the coup. I had succeeded Bill as Pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church of Indianapolis, when Bill was elected to the U. S. Congress. After being defeated in his bid for a second term, he ran for Mayor of Indianapolis and served very effectively for four terms. He continued to worship at Second Church, and though we differed politically, we got along very well.
I also knew and liked the president and C.E.O. of the Mayflower Company, John B. Smith, who had joined Second Presbyterian Church while I was Pastor there. I mention these relationships to help explain why I had mixed emotions about the Colts’ move to Indianapolis. I was happy for my former congregation, who like the rest of Indianapolis, were thrilled to be getting their own NFL team to play in the city’s new domed stadium.
The Colts’ surreptitious move had triggered a long, drawn out legal battle, which went all the way to the Supreme Court. Despite the ultimate settlement resulting in the dropping of Maryland’s efforts to force the NFL to return the team to Baltimore, the departure of the Colts left a bitter taste in the mouths of Baltimore Colts fans. They resented the move, knowing the city had made a generous offer to try keep the Colts in Baltimore. More than that, they resented what they felt was the purloining of the name which had identified their team for decades. To add insult to injury. the Indianapolis Colts would have the same uniforms, the same colors, the same insignia as the Baltimore Colts!
Ironically, when Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell decided to move the team to Baltimore, to be called the Baltimore Browns, there was such an uproar from the Cleveland fans that the NFL, in approving the move in 1996, ruled that the Browns’ name, colors, and history belonged to Cleveland. For once the powers that be got it right! Hooray for the Cleveland fans!
Baltimore fans, in the meantime, were hoping their new team could again be called the Baltimore Colts, but the Irsays nixed that idea! A fan contest resulted in their being named “the ravens,” an appropriate moniker for a team representing the burial place of Edgar Allen Poe.
Baltimore fans are used to calling their team the Ravens now, and I doubt if they would want to switch back to calling them the Colts, even if they could. But the question I asked in my earlier in my earlier article remains: Who owns the name of a sports team, the franchise operators who own the business or the fans who pay the freight?
How do you feel about it?