Football Slaves

Can a football team be expropriated by a city under the government's power of eminent domain? Life is stranger than fiction.


All my life I had supposed eminent domain to be merely the right of a government to bulldoze some old lady's little fruit stand to make way for an expressway, to drain a little boy's fishing pond to let a railroad through, or to chase Indians off land there might be oil under. It never occurred to me it could be used to put the arm on a guy who just wanted to leave town. Never in my wildest dreams did I consider a municipality would exercise it to take over a football team.

But in June the California State Supreme Court—a wonderful collection of refugees right out of Lewis Carroll, lovable eccentrics who seem to take their law from Alice in Wonderland instead of Blackstone—ruled that Oakland may sue to acquire the Raiders team and keep them from, as planned, moving to Los Angeles. That this may contravene the constitutional restraints against cruel and unusual punishment seems not to have weighed here. Perhaps that's another trial.

The ruling, presumably, was handed down by the White Rabbit himself. I don't know what Oakland's going to do with the Raiders. They can hardly turn them into a freeway or run a railroad through them. God knows there's no oil under them. Are they going to put swings on their field or monkey bars?

What I don't understand is, if you can condemn and obtain a football team, why didn't they try for the 49ers? Personally, I think they should have told the court they wanted at least the Cincinnati Bengals. If you can get a team by court order, why not the Dallas Cowboys? After all, they're America's Team, right? It's a nice idea, though. Maybe Yale should take over Notre Dame. God knows it would help New Haven—if anything can.

The action raises some nice points of law. If teams can't move, can individuals? What if the world's richest man has a stopover at the Oakland Airport? Can they get a writ from the California Supreme Court expropriating him under the right of eminent domain and forcing him to remain and pay taxes to the city of Oakland in perpetuity? Can they sell tickets to see him?

Is the ruling retroactive? Should it be applied nationally? If so, do the Dodgers go back to Brooklyn, the Giants to New York, the Lions to Detroit, the Rams to Los Angeles—indeed, to Cleveland, because that's where they originally came from? Do the Washington Redskins now go back to Boston? The St. Louis Cardinals go back to Chicago? Do the Chicago Bears become the Decatur Staleys again? After all, that's where they started. Where should the Braves go? Milwaukee first and then Boston? Do the Giants get out of Jersey?

Indeed, what would Oakland say if the courts in Pennsylvania decided its baseball team had to go back to Philadelphia, where it started as the Philadelphia Athletics 80 years ago? Does Los Angeles get the Chargers back?

The court ruled that Oakland "may acquire by eminent domain any property necessary to carry out any of its powers or functions." Funny. That's what Hitler said when he marched into Poland. The German word for eminent domain was Lebensraum.

In a way, it has always been cheeky of some carpet-bagging owner who made his money selling shirts to the army or guns to the Arabs, or whose grandfather bought furs for strings of glass beads, to be able to buy an athletic team like a set of electric trains or an Erector set and grandly superimpose the territorial mandate "New York" or "Chicago" or "Detroit" across their uniforms and feed on municipal pride and support. But, even if Al Davis, the well-known managing general partner, had called his team simply The Raiders, leaving blank the geographical identification, would this have protected him from the following "law"? "In this period of fiscal constraints, if the city fathers of Oakland in their collective wisdom elect to seek the ownership of a professional football franchise, are we to say them nay?"

Honest. That's what the court said. If they're asking me, the answer would be, "Hell, yes!"

Apart from all that, it's a lovely little grift. The city must pay "fair market value" for the condemned team. If you think they will, ask anybody whose beach house was condemned by government to provide a place for the public to drop its potato salad and sandwich wrappers and dogs' mistakes. The fair market value of the Rams in 1962 when Dan Reeves bought the club outright was $7 million. Ten years later, Carroll Rosenbloom acquired it for $19 million.

If you're beginning to see a trend, stick around. I think Al Davis is gonna feel like that little old lady with the fruit stand. He will get banana peels all over him. Sometimes, when the city takes over your property, it promises to help you reestablish in some other location. They'll probably help Al get a Roller Derby franchise in Dubuque.

As of late August, it appears that the Raiders will be starting the 1982 football season in Los Angeles. The California Supreme Court, in ruling that Oakland may go to court to attempt to retain the team under eminent domain, refused to grant an injunction keeping the team from moving while the case is decided. Later, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, in a separate court battle between the National Football League and the Raiders, rejected an NFL request that the team be ordered to stay put while the NFL fights the move in court. —Eds.

Jim Murray is a sports columnist for the Los Angeles Times, from which this article is reprinted with permission. Copyright © 1982 by the Los Angeles Times