Indianapolis Colts and the scars of Baltimore

There are plenty of unsavory acts committed within the realm of professional sports. There are players who taunt. And cheat. And do drugs. Coaches who tell players to injure other players. And cheat. And do drugs. Owners who raise ticket prices. And cut payroll. And otherwise spuriously maximize their profits.

But there is one transgression that trumps them all. One nefarious act that raises the ire of sports fans more than any other. One deed so despicable, it can scar a city for generations.

This act of athletic treason has been carried out by numerous professional teams throughout the four major sports. In the NFL alone, 11 out of the 32 teams have committed this cardinal, or more appropriately, Chicago/St. Louis/Arizona Cardinal, sin.

I am speaking of course, of franchise relocation.

When the playing of professional sports in the United States began in earnest at the beginning of the 20th century, few expected these “athletes-for-hire” to garner support and admiration from communities in the same way their supposedly morally virtuous amateur counterparts did. Thus little fuss seems to have been made when the Portsmouth Spartans were transformed into the Detroit Lions and the Decatur Staleys became the Chicago Bears. But when post-war America embraced professional football, NFL and AFL franchises quickly became an established part of the sports-scape. Soon New Yorkers were crazy for their Giants, Philadelphians rabid over the Eagles, and Baltimoreans living and dying with the Colts. Franchise relocation understandably became an act of derision.

Yet teams have continued to move, to leave behind their loyal fanbase if their stadium is too old, their fans too lethargic, or their profits too low. The devastation brought about by the recent relocation of the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore and the Houston Oilers to Tennessee provides ample proof of the heartbreak suffered by fans who’ve lost their team. Luckily for Oiler and Browns fans, the Texans and New Browns were quickly installed — within six and four seasons, respectively — to help them lick their wounds.

Not all cities are so lucky. Los Angeles, the nation’s second-largest TV market, has lost not one, not two, but three teams in its football history and now sits without an NFL squad to call its own. Many Los Angeleans claim they don’t want a team anymore, and its hard to blame them. After being jilted by the Chargers in ’61, and both the Rams and Raiders in ’95, why suffer the heartbreak of love and loss again?

Baltimoreans asked themselves that question in ’84, when their beloved Colts, the blue-collar team that was the professional football epitome of their blue-collar town, left in the infamous “Midnight Move” orchestrated out by the Irsay family ownership. After suffering through 13 seasons without a team, the Browns arrived in ’96, became the Ravens, and promptly won the Super Bowl five years later. The healing process had been completed, though at the expense of the Browns.

Or so it seemed. Now Baltimoreans must cope with their pain again. In this the 20th season of NFL football since the Colts departed, the people of Indianapolis have had the chance to celebrate playoff success for only the second time. In 1996, when Jim Harbaugh led Indy’s Colts to the AFC Championship Game, Baltimore remained NFL franchise-less, and thus retained a venomous hatred for its former squad. The city breathed a sigh of relief when the Pittsburgh Steelers prevented the team from returning to its first Super Bowl since the Colts’ victorious effort in Super Bowl V. Now the Colts are back. They are again on the cusp of glory, just one win away from football’s promised land.

Should the Colts win, every Baltimore football fan must re-examine his scars. Now that they have cherished possession of the Lombardi Trophy for a second time, albeit under the purple and black auspices of the Ravens, it is possible that many of them will forgive. But I doubt any of those old enough to remember the way the Colts’ desertion tore out their hearts will be willing to forget. Men like my father and my uncles, Colts fans who remember Unitas, Morrall, Berry and Shula. Sons like me, who were told stories of those great players’ exploits, and instructed never to trust anyone named Irsay. (Or Elway for that matter, but that’s a different story.)

If the Colts set foot in Houston, we will have a lot to think about. Many of us will hope that doesn’t happen.

Predictions:

AFC Championship: Colts 31, Patriots 28

NFC Championship: Eagles 24, Panthers 17

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