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L.A. Rams' return: The good, the bad and the ugly

On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

L.A. Rams' return: The good, the bad and the ugly

Stephen H. Provost

There's a lot to like about the Los Angeles Rams coming home. I say "Los Angeles Rams" not because of the NFL's decision to return them to Southern California, but because that's what they'll always be to me ... and what they always have been.

The Raiders have always been associated, first and foremost, with Oakland, the Chargers with San Diego, and the Rams with ... Los Angeles. Not St. Louis, and not Cleveland, where they played for the first few years of their existence, but Los Angeles.

I was an L.A. Rams fan before Merlin Olsen was Father Murphy, when their helmets were blue and white, when they went into the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl leading the Pittsburgh Steelers. I was an L.A. Rams fan back in '78, when Warren Beatty starred in a movie called "Heaven Can Wait" about a Rams quarterback who died and came back to life in the body of a heartless tycoon. 

So I love the fact that the Rams are going back to L.A. But I've got to admit, there's also a lot not to like about how they got there. Here's a rundown of the good, the bad, and the ugly of the NFL's decision (Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2016) to put the Rams back where they've always belonged.

The Good

In a word, history. In a name - or names: Norm Van Brocklin, Elroy Hirsh, Bob Waterfield, Jack Snow, Merlin Olsen, Deacon Jones, Lawrence McCutcheon, Jim Everett, Henry Ellard, Eric Dickerson, Flipper Anderson, Jack Snow, Tom Mack, Tom Fars, Les Richter, Jackie Slater, Jack Youngblood. 

If history were the deciding factor, there never would have been a discussion about which team belonged in Los Angeles. The Rams were there for 48 years (if you count their time in Anaheim), four times as long as the Raiders and Chargers combined. They were the first major team in the city, arriving from Cleveland more than a decade before the Dodgers, Angels and Lakers showed up, and they were the first NFL team on the West Coast.

Speaking of the West Coast, if geography were the deciding factor, allowing the NFC West would never have been transformed into the NFC 3 West + 1 Midwest and the natural San Francisco-Los Angeles rivalry would have been preserved.

If fans were the deciding factor, it would have been just as much of a slam dunk worthy of Wilt or Shaq. Poll after poll showed the Rams were the fans' overwhelming favorites to make an encore appearance. A Facebook page called "Bring Back the Los Angeles Rams" had been operating for some time, and fans rallied in Los Angeles to show the NFL their support. There was no such clamor to bring back the Raiders, despite their Super Bowl win with former USC great Marcus Allen, or the Chargers, who spent all of one season in L.A. compared to their subsequent half-century in San Diego.

The bad

But, ultimately, the deciding factor was - as it always seems to be with the NFL - money. A billionaire developer with marital ties to the Walmart fortune beat out a group backed by the Walt Disney Company CEO for dibs on L.A. It wasn't about football, it was about playing hardball. It was almost as if Leo Farnsworth - that heartless tycoon from "Heaven Can Wait" -  was somehow involved.

What would the unprincipled Farnsworth have done if he'd owned an NFL team? Maybe he would have threatened to leave town unless taxpayers anted up millions toward a new stadium. Maybe he would have insulted his team's fans for failing to support a second-rate product or its city for refusing to go along with his demands. 

One good thing you can say about Rams owner Stan Kroenke is that at least he's paying his own way to Los Angeles. But don't expect that to become a trend. Most of the NFL's other owners aren't as rich as Kroenke and prefer to extort money from working class taxpayers to build new stadiums that aren't really needed. They do this by threatening to move somewhere else.

In fact, the NFL has supported this tactic for the past 20 years by dangling Los Angeles like a poison pill in front of fans from Seattle to Minneapolis to Jacksonville and allowing its owners to say, "If you don't pay, we'll move to L.A."

But when the L.A. Clippers basketball team sold for an outrageous $2 billion, it became apparent that even this time-honored sword of Damocles wasn't as valuable as the pot of gold underneath the Hollywood sign. Kroenke recognized this and decided to cash in. He could move quickly because he had the money in hand; the Chargers and Raiders had to team up in order to challenge him, but even together they couldn't match his monetary muscle.

The ugly

L.A. may be out of the picture, but owners still have plenty of other teamless cities to use as bait in the "we want a new stadium now" game. Now there's St. Louis and, probably, San Diego to go along with such oft-mentioned sites as San Antonio, Toronto and London.

Kroenke was probably the only owner out there willing and able to spend all his own money on a new stadium, so the bluff-and-threat stadium sweepstakes is likely to continue unabated. Kroenke doesn't care now that he's got his. If the NFL had denied his petition to move, he could have sued for the right to do so or just ignored the league altogether. He knew this. The NFL knew this.

The Chargers and Raiders should have known it, too.

But now, after losing this high-stakes game of chicken, Chargers owner Dean Spanos finds himself between a rock and a hard place, having thumbed his nose at both Kroenke and the city of San Diego. Now, he's got to choose one or the other. Either Spanos will be a small fish in the big Los Angeles basin, playing second fiddle to the Rams in Kroenke's world, or he'll be one big ugly blowfish in San Diego, where there's plenty of resentment over how he turned his back on that city and its fans.

Spanos has zero leverage now with Kroenke, whose relocation to L.A. has already been approved and can afford to offer Spanos little more than the scraps that fall from his dinner table now that he has nothing to lose.

Raiders owner Mark Davis is in even worse shape, because his lease is up in Oakland and his stadium is one of those that actually should be replaced. (It's the only NFL stadium to double as a baseball park.)

But I don't feel sorry for either of them. The people I feel sorry for is the fans, who have become innocent bystanders in this game of chicken between the NFL and its cities. And in a game of chicken, when one tries to cross the road, he gets hit coming and going.

I think I'll go watch "Heaven Can Wait" now. The hero dies, but at least it has a happy ending, and it's a lot cheaper than a ticket to a real NFL game. I'll watch that on TV. And I'll root for the Rams. The Los Angeles Rams. That's all they ever should have been, and whether it be thanks to God or the devil or Leo Farnsworth, they're finally back where they belong.