Wednesday, May 23, 2001

Baseball could learn from NFL realignment

        Realignment is never really about geography. It is almost always about influence.

        It is arbitrary rather than absolute, replete with personal agendas and backstairs politics instead of objective criteria and dispassionate mapmakers. It is about the power brokers vs. the power-broke.

        Oops, sorry. For a moment there, I thought I was writing a baseball column.

        Today's topic, instead, is the NFL, which was reconfigured Tuesday after less than an hour of debate. Seldom in the history of professional sports have so many done so much with so little argument.

        “I hesitate to compare what we do with other sports,” Cincinnati Bengals owner Mike Brown
said Tuesday. “All I can tell you is we do have a way of getting together on matters, and our record over the years has been pretty good. This is just another example of that.

        “Maybe the standard is too low.”

Socialist regime
        Anyone who has observed Bud Selig's burlesque efforts to realign baseball might view NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue as a master magician. But Tagliabue's task was comparatively simple. NFL owners are enormously competitive and occasionally contentious, but they understand the benefits of shared revenues and mutual cooperation. They usually can be sold on something that produces a bigger pie.

        Other than Oakland's Al Davis, the one man who is an island, the NFL functions like a year-long luau. There's plenty for everyone, provided no one makes a pig of himself. Art Modell once described the NFL owners as “28 Republicans who vote socialist,” and that phrase still would be apt except for expansion.

        The NFL's new eight-division format — to take effect beginning with the 2002 season — generally conforms to conventional geography, but there are enough exceptions to warrant suspicion.

        The Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens, situated both east and south of Buffalo, nonetheless will continue to compete with their ancient AFC Central rivals in a new AFC North. Dallas remains in the NFC East. St. Louis remains in the NFC West. Rand McNally remains mystified.

        That these cartographical distortions were approved so swiftly speaks to the NFL's ability to avoid disputes through the equitable division of dollars.

Something for everyone

        Before any owner could claim he was being short-changed by realignment, the league revised its revenue-sharing formula to pool those proceeds normally collected by the visiting team. No one had to worry about being stuck in a division with teams that don't draw.

        Result: relative harmony and a unanimous vote. Though the Arizona Cardinals objected to being separated from the Dallas Cowboys, they were appeased by scheduling resolutions designed to soften the blow on displaced franchises.

        Few teams got everything they asked, but everyone got something. The word for this, baseball fans, is compromise.

        Fay Vincent lost his job trying to realign baseball. Selig sought massive realignment and managed to move only his own team. NFL owners cannot explain how Indianapolis was once East of Cincinnati and is now South, but they have made it work.

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