Eisenberg: The NFL "Hearts" Baltimore


The National Football League doesn't like Baltimore. The league is out to get the Ravens.

Those are sentiments with plenty of local backing, seemingly as accepted and commonplace as purple car flags or memories of Johnny Unitas.

When Tom Brady gets hit below the knee, cries for a flag and gets one, the chorus goes up. When the schedule-makers pit the Ravens against three straight opponents coming off byes, the chorus goes up.

Not everyone in Ravenstown believes the league has it in for their team, but going by what you hear and read on radio talk shows and Internet sites, plenty of folks do.

Sorry, I'm not one of them.

In fact, I couldn't disagree more. I don't believe for a second that the NFL dislikes Baltimore and wants the Ravens to lose.

The Ravens are a model franchise. They play in an attractive state-of-the art stadium and routinely sell out their games, unlike some other teams. They're run soundly and intelligently, with their feet firmly planted on the ground, unlike some other teams. They usually put on a good show, with iconic Ray Lewis out front, when they're on national TV.

They don't sue their season ticket holders, ban critical stadium signs and flail around for a winning recipe while their fans chafe, as, ahem, a certain team just south of Baltimore does.

The NFL doesn't like Baltimore? Shoot, the NFL loves Baltimore and the Ravens. The league's return to this market has been a hugely positive development.

The idea that the Ravens are outsiders, viewed negatively by those in power, is pure baloney. The Ravens are well-represented in the league's inner circle. General manager Ozzie Newsome is a longtime member of the competition committee, the hugely influential group that sets on-field policy. Dick Cass, the Ravens' president since 2004, has served as counsel to the league and numerous other owners, including the Dallas Cowboys' Jerry Jones, and is so respected he was deemed a longshot candidate to replace Paul Tagliabue as commissioner in 2006.

And Steve Bisciotti is just what the league wants in an owner – someone who is competitive and successful but also stable and respectful of the league's complex machinations.

The league roots against that? Shoot, the league wishes it had more teams like the Ravens.

I understand where the "they're against us" sentiment comes from – the expansion charade of the mid-1990s, when new franchises were awarded to Jacksonville and Charlotte. Although Baltimore had an attractive proposal and a long history of supporting football, the league clearly preferred to expand to the sunny south rather than put another team into the crowded northeast. Baltimore was used, and Tagliabue's galling comment that perhaps some cities should build museums rather than stadiums made things worse.

I'm sure the league wasn't pleased when Baltimore reacted to the snub by luring Art Modell and the Cleveland Browns, who became the Ravens in 1996. The move caused enormous upheaval, and as Michael MacCambridge reported in his superb book "America's Game," former Baltimore mayor and Maryland governor William Donald Schaefer wrote to Tagliabue saying "you could have avoided all this turmoil if only you had played fair." Ouch. That's bad blood.

But it is old news now, a passionate moment that has been layered-over emotionally – certainly on the other side if not this one. In the 13 years since Baltimore rejoined the league, the Ravens have established themselves as a rock-solid franchise. They've won a Super Bowl, made five playoff appearances, drafted shrewdly and developed an identity and a passionate following. They've been good for the NFL, and the NFL knows it.

Have penalties been called erroneously on their players at times? Sure. But there are dubious calls in every game, involving every team – traceable to the rule book getting too big, not to some conspiracy.

Does the schedule sometimes work against them? Sure. But it works for them just as often – how about this year's soft stretch run, with three of the last four games against teams with a combined 9-23 record?

If you study NFL history, you see the league is never out to get any of its members. Having long operated on the principle that a weak link can ruin the whole chain – a principle that has helped it become America's top sports league -- it continually endeavors to strengthen, not punish, its franchises, the Ravens included.

John Eisenberg worked in the newspaper business for 28 years as a sports columnist, with much of that time coming at the Baltimore Sun. While working for the Sun, Eisenberg spent time covering the Ravens, among other teams and events, including the Super Bowl, Final Four, World Series and Olympics. Eisenberg is also the author of seven sports-themed books.

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