The St. Louis lawsuit against the NFL, filed as a straightforward attack on the league’s corrupt relocation process, has been settled for $790 million.
Based on the early reactions on social media and the grumbling on St. Louis sports-talk radio, the news was received with confusion, disappointment, and disgust. That doesn’t apply to everyone, of course. And social-media overreactions can be misleading.
But the disappointment out there is unmistakable.
I have an opinion on that.
St. Louis won.
St. Louis got the NFL to pay up.
It’s not a complete victory in the legal sense; that was possible only if the matter went to trial. But this certainly qualifies as vindication.
St. Louis was able to discover piles of NFL dirt hidden behind the dishonest process and embarrassed the league by bringing it out in the open.
St. Louis caught NFL commissioner Roger Goodell — and other cronies and accomplices — in brazen lies.
St. Louis made Rams owner Kroenke squirm in fear of absorbing an unexpectedly heavy hit to his finances.
St. Louis was the driving force that caused Kroenke to turn on his fellow owners as he tried to weasel his way out of a contractual agreement to indemnify the owners from financial repercussions stemming from the lawsuit.
St. Louis was the lightning rod that left owners furious at Kroenke, which in turn led Kroenke to go after his 31 partners by threatening to settle with STL by himself — leaving the owners holding the bag on the largest share of any damage award.
The St. Louis attorneys found the truth in the darkened NFL backrooms and brought that truth to light. And because of this dispute, the NFL already has amended its relocation guidelines. Perhaps that will help another vulnerable city avoid having its team swiped under false pretenses.
For the league it was one embarrassment after another — with undoubtedly more to come.
By agreeing to throw $790 million at the growing problem to make it go away, the NFL unofficially acknowledged that its relocation guidelines were a sham. And by taking the fight to the most powerful sports league on earth, St. Louis exposed the spurious process that was rigged to facilitate the Rams move to Los Angeles.
Kroenke was willing to fund a new stadium in Los Angeles — he eventually spent $5 billion after massive cost overruns — and it was the league’s only shot to solve the LA problem. When a status-seeking rube wants to build you a stadium in a town that never would spend public money to raise a stadium — well, the league had to make it happen. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And if it meant burning St. Louis, so be it.
National media ignored the fix back then and happily celebrated the league’s triumphant return to Los Angeles. And even though national media essentially ignored the ensuing legal battle story — with a few exceptions — the STL lawsuit was legitimate and had substantial merit. The NFL kept losing round after round in court, and St. Louis had momentum.
St. Louis could have walloped the NFL in the trial that was scheduled for Jan. 10 — but St. Louis also had a chance of losing at trial. These things are never as clear and predictable as we think they are, and the uncertainty can create doubt. On both sides.
You just never know what a jury will do. You can never be entirely sure. What was the possibility of a jury coming in with a much lower pro-STL award than expected? What if a jury had gone the Super Bowl 36 route and pulled a stunning upset that gave the win to the NFL?
And even if STL prevailed with its home court advantage and gathered a humongous reward, the NFL would appeal the verdict. The legal skirmish would be transferred to higher levels — with multiple challenges — and the NFL certainly would be more comfortable in a neutral setting. This set-to could have gone on for years.
I thought the settlement would come in higher, but I was never caught up in the “B” word — as in billion. I largely dismissed wild forecasts of multi-billion dollar awards. I occasionally commented on this business but always included a warning. I passed along a few notes — the gossipy things that were more entertainment than substance.
I was admittedly a crank about this STL vs. NFL showdown. Not because I didn’t want STL to win, and get a measure of justice. Of course I wanted St. Louis to come out on top.
But frankly, I could see how this was going from the start: overly inflated hopes and expectations, the local media getting passionate fans worked up to believe that St. Louis would bring Kroenke and Goodell and the other owners to cower ans shiver and crawl into the fetal position for a complete and unconditional surrender, and that the payoff would include an NFL expansion team.
I watched with disgust as carnival barkers exploited STL media and fans by pumping up the expansion-team narrative to the point that many believed it could happen … or WOULD happen. And that expansion-team fever intensified.
I didn’t want to be a part of that — manipulating St. Louis fans as an easy way to increase page views for my online columns, and drive up ratings for my radio show. In that context, I was stupid. It was so ridiculously easy to do, to draw attention to myself by playing to the crowd.
Here’s the thing: St. Louis football fans have been through hell so many times — and punished and cheated in the most unfair of ways — I couldn’t bring myself to be part of a media frenzy that would set up these great fans for yet another terrible, crushing disappointment.
(One aside, and this is important: From start to finish, Joel Currier and Ben Fredrickson of the Post-Dispatch provided reliable, level-headed and enlightening reporting and perspective on this news story. Much respect to the P-D. To his credit, BenFred never lost perspective — or his mind — by pushing the expansion-team narrative that provided an easy play for a columnist seeking to be manipulative to drive up approval ratings. Fortunately, Ben isn’t like that. Frederickson took a strong pro-STL view — just as he should have, because St. Louis had been wronged and went forward with a worthy case.)
Look, the NFL wasn’t going to put an expansion team in St. Louis. Not a chance. And even — by miracle — it happened, that was hardly the end of the affair. Who owns the team? Can that person be trusted?Are we going to get burned again? What about a stadium? Who pays for it? What about the expansion fees? Who picks up the tab for that? That and a thousand other questions.
The story was loaded with emotion, with fans and the overwhelming majority of STL media filled with rage and seeking revenge. But the temperature was raised to an extremely high setting, creating insane expectations, and a total victory was never possible.
And that includes a victory by verdict in the courtroom. Yes, that pro-STL verdict would have been a cause to celebrate — because we could mark it down as an official win. At least until the start of the formal appeals process.)
Truth is, the NFL and Kroenke could have absorbed the heaviest of financial hits, and it wouldn’t have weakened the league or Kroenke. Not in a significant way. The league maintains enormous popularity. The television and streaming contracts continue to escalate, bringing in additional billions of dollars for the owners to enjoy.
The NFL wanted to settle to block more secrets from being revealed, to avoid additional embarrassing disclosures, tp prevent the STL legal team from getting deeper access to the owners’ financial records and other personal matters, and to broker peace and put an end to the punch-throwing between Kroenke and his partners.
— The NFL and St. Louis have a doomed and damaged relationship — and it’s been this way for decades. This just didn’t begin with the Rams-to-LA heist. This has been a bizarre experience for multiple generations of St. Louis pro football fans.
— The Chicago Cardinals move here.
— The St. Louis football Cardinals move to Arizona — in large part because of the usual City vs. County feud over the location of a proposed new stadium.
— St. Louis builds a domed stadium to attract an NFL expansion team, screwed up the sure-thing expansion process by squabbling over the rights to the lease — and lost the second expansion team, which went to Jacksonville instead.
— St. Louis attracts the Anaheim-based Rams with the most lucrative stadium lease and financial package in NFL history at the time. But the Rams are initially blocked by the NFL owners — until the league could use its strong-arm leverage to extract a much larger relocation fee from Rams owner Georgia Frontiere.
— After the Rams paid up and made the move with league permission, St. Louis sued the league for interference, alleging that the NFL had caused the NFL-to-STL group to negotiate under duress. In 1997, U.S. District Judge Jean Hamilton ruled in favor of the NFL.
— When St. Louis negotiated a lease with the Rams, the leaders inexplicably agreed to a de facto escape clause — based on the dome maintaining an upper-tier status among NFL stadiums — and it left the city vulnerable. Frontiere had no desire to take advantage of the opening, and let the matter rest after agreeing to several relatively minor upgrades to the stadium. But when the late Frontiere’s children sold the controlling share of the franchise to Kroenke, he swooped in to exploit the soft spot in the lease. That led to the move to LA, the lawsuit, and the $790 million settlement.
— St. Louis had an NFL team for 49 seasons. The Cardinals and Rams combined for 16 winning records and eight postsasons in the nearly half-century of NFL football. Except for the splendid but brief Air Coryell years with the Cardinals, and the Greatest Show Rams team that won two NFC titles and a Super Bowl over a three-season period, too many game days ended in defeat and despair. And 33 of the 49 seasons were non-winning years.
I hope local political leaders will make good use of the settlement money. But this will all probably lead to another fight between different factions in the STL area. That’s how we do things here, so my expectations are low.
I’m fine with the settlement. We took the NFL on, made the NFL sweat and worry and squabble, and got the mighty league to pay a hefty penalty for its wrongdoing. Not that it matters to anyone outside of the St. Louis region, but this legal confrontation unmasked the NFL cartel, and showed how the league misled and betrayed St. Louis after our town made an honest effort to adhere to the relocation guidelines.
That will have to do. And this win is sufficient for those who realize that even a full-on victory wouldn’t have ruined Kroenke or the league. Just having these people revealed for the rats that they are is a wonderful thing. The deal between the NFL and St. Louis isn’t the most substantial resolution in league history; the NFL has distributed paid more than $900 million to retired players and their families in a settlement over a concussion lawsuit. But that’s in a different category, and the league was shamed into taking care of diminished, suffering players.
The cartel never really loses, but from a legal standpoint we hit them harder than anyone since Raiders owner Al Davis back in the early 1980s. Davis sued the league and was awarded $16.41 million in an antitrust suit after the NFL attempted to prohibit the Raiders from moving from Oakland to Los Angeles. Treble damages pushed the final figure to $49.2 million.
When the verdict was announced in 1983, Davis attorney Joseph Alioto said this: “This vindicates Al Davis’s serious charge that the league dealt with him in bad faith. Hit the monopolies the only way they understand – in the pocketbook.”
Like $790 million in the pocketbook.
And dig this: as a result of the NFL’s courtroom loss to Al Davis, the league decided to implement a formal relocation process that evolved into the relocation guidelines — yep, the relocation guidelines that the NFL and Kroenke ignored or manipulated to justify this sordid Los Angeles money grab.
Nearly 40 years after Davis took on the NFL and won, the NFL still believed it could do whatever it wanted to do. And if that means making up relocation rules then breaking them to ram a team into Los Angeles, then so be it.
Except that the spirit of Al Davis was still around … this time in St. Louis.
And St. Louis rolled with Al to squeeze a $790 settlement from the league.
It isn’t easy to beat the NFL at anything. Few of you will agree with me, but I’ve been covering this league since 1982. I’ve covered multiple franchise relocations. I know how this league operates, and how cleverly it maneuvers to avoid punches and accountability. This is a league that knows how to escape courtroom tackles, a league that rarely is held responsible for its misdeeds.
Well, St. Louis held these scoundrels responsible, and it paid off.
Who does that?
We did it.
Feel good about that.
And I hope local media and fans will evict Kroenke from your headspace. You’ve been letting him live there, messing with your mind, for way too long. Enough already. End the obsession.
As for me, here’s the biggest win of all: we don’t have to deal with these shady miscreants anymore. They’ll scurry like vermin and be out of our lives.
This makes for an even happier Thanksgiving.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the “Bernie Show” podcast at 590thefan.com — the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store.
Follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz