Sports teams' wanderlust irks Congress

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In recent years, major-league sports teams have been rolling cross-country like so many mobile homes. The National Football League's Raiders moved from Oakland down to Los Angeles in 1982, trailing lawsuits in their wake. Last month , the Colts skulked out of Baltimore in the dead of night, headed for Indianapolis.

This wandering has annoyed jilted fans - and some members of Congress. Legislators are now considering a bill that would make it much tougher for major-league franchises to move.

Lest New Yorkers get excited, it must be said, however, that the legislation would not force the Dodgers to return to Brooklyn.

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''We're concerned that communities are being left out in the cold,'' says a congressional aide involved in the subject. ''They invest money in these teams through tax breaks, stadium construction, etc.''

Sweepingly titled the ''Professional Sports Team Community Protection Act,'' the legislation is known informally as ''the Colts bill.'' The Colts left Baltimore on March 29, the same day the bill was filed.

If passed, the bill would have a large effect on the relocation of teams in major-league baseball, the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League, and the National Football League (NFL).

First, it would require owners to give advance notice of a proposed move. Prospective local buyers would get first crack at purchasing the team. A move wouldn't be allowed unless fans weren't supporting the team, or it was in financial trouble, or its stadium was in poor condition.

The Senate version of the bill, which was voted out of the Commerce Committee last week by a one-vote margin, requires the NFL to add two new teams, with one of them going to Baltimore. Sen. Slade Gorton (R) of Washington now indicates he may up that ante to four new NFL teams and two new baseball teams. The House version doesn't mandate any new teams - but it would be retroactive, requiring Colts' owner Robert Irsay to repack his 15 semitrailers of trophies, uniforms, and equipment, and come back to Baltimore.

Sports teams today are increasingly subsidized by the cities they reside in, Senator Gorton says. Municipal authorities often pay for stadium construction, through capital bonds; stadium lease payments are typically far below cost. Many teams get a break on their local taxes.

The movement of teams thus may have to be restricted to ''protect significant public investments,'' Gorton told a Senate hearing.

Sports leagues, predictably, are less than pleased with this prospect. If Congress passes the sports team act, ''you'll wind up with a Super Bowl, all right - a Super Bowl for lawyers,'' says Joseph Browne, a spokesman for the National Football League.

As well as sticking the government's nose in a place it has no right to be, Mr. Browne says, the bill ignores the problem at the heart of the issue - strict application of antitrust laws. Last February a federal court ruled that the NFL violated antitrust law by ordering the Oakland Raiders to stay put. The Raiders were allowed to move to Los Angeles, over the NFL's objections.

Major-league baseball, years ago, was granted immunity from antitrust law, and thus doesn't have this problem. The NFL would like the same status.

The sports team act is now the subject of hearings in the House. Passage this session is unlikely, admits a Senate aide - there is just too little time before the November elections.

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