AS the Chicago Bears fight to recover first place in their division and a sure playoff slot, their hometown fans are fighting to hold on to something more fundamental: the Bears themselves.
Chicago is trying to beat a bid by five Indiana businessmen who are trying to lure the Bears to Gary, Ind. The carrot: trading the stadium of columned concrete called Soldier Field for a proposed futuristic complex named Planet Park.
In Chicago, as in many US cities, the hint of a move by a cherished major league team has triggered public soul-searching and cries of betrayal. But rather than just fret and whine, Chicago has gone on the offensive, bristling at team owners and the rival executives from Indiana.
Mayor Richard Daley seeks to lock the home team in an unbreakable embrace that reveals much about the public attitude and politics of Chicago. His strong hand also offers some lessons to other US mayors who must try to hold on to fickle pro-football teams increasingly looking elsewhere for greener gridirons - and money.
After making a $156 million offer to revamp the stadium, Daley suggested at a press conference last week that Chicago could make do without the Bears. He hinted that the city had discussed hosting an expansion team of the Canadian Football League.
While not singling out the Bears, Daley also railed against the eagerness of some National Football League teams to subordinate fan loyalty to profit and move to other cities.
This month the Houston Oilers and Cleveland Browns announced plans to move to Nashville and Baltimore respectively. Before this season began, Los Angeles lost the Rams to St. Louis and the Raiders to Oakland, Calif.
Daley plans to meet with other mayors next month in Cleveland to discuss ways of discouraging teams from abandoning their host cities. The team owners are ''threatening mayors,'' Daley said. ''They're going to other mayors and saying, 'We want your taxpayers' money. Give us the money or we're gonna leave here.' ''
Mayors ''better all get together because we're being used,'' Daley said. The factory floor language and no-holds-barred posture of Daley fit the city's traditional blue-collar ethos, the very ethos underpinning the Bears as a city institution.
But Chicagoans would sorely miss their Bears. ''The Chicago area is primarily a blue-collar, working-class community, it is epitomized by the bungalow belt radiating outward from the city and by the tremendous immigrant roots and diverse cultures of Chicago,'' says Daniel Solis, president of the United Neighborhood Organization of Chicago, an immigrant aid group. ''The Bears help bond family and the community together.''
While Daley delivered a glancing blow at Bears management, his assistants laid into the stadium plan by the Northwest Indiana Chicagoland Entertainment Inc. (NICE), the nonprofit organization behind Planet Park. Ed Bedore, who handles the issue for Daley, noted numerous financial, environmental, and logistical obstacles to Planet Park and likened the project to ''Jellystone Park,'' the home of cartoon character Yogi Bear.
NICE rebuffed the objections. ''They simply don't have the information to make those kinds of criticisms,'' says spokeswoman Colleen Dykes.
Still, she acknowledges that the stadium initiative confronts some sizable challenges. The area of Planet Park encompasses wetlands and adjoins several hazardous-waste sites. NICE must finesse laws restricting construction on such properties. Moreover, in order to fund the project, NICE must persuade Lake County to approve a half-percent income-tax increase. It must also win the backing of the financial community for $312 million in bonds for the first phase of construction.
Finally, by moving to Gary the Bears risk antagonizing many of the fans they have among the 6 million residents in the Chicago metropolitan area. It's an unusual factor. A team in Gary would pull from many of those same sports viewers, while teams that move to distant cities do not face the threat of a backlash from fans.