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Browns Fan Storms Hill, But Outlook Remains Bleak

Wed., Feb. 7, 1996

NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, seeking to get Congress to stop “franchise free agency,” was made to wait his turn Tuesday while congressmen heard from an emotional Cleveland fan about to be deprived of his team.

“Fans need rights to protect themselves from men who park on runways in Lear jets waiting for secret knocks to sign secret deals to take away our children’s opportunity to have investments in the Cleveland Browns or any other NFL team,” John “Big Dawg” Thompson said in Washington, D.C.

Thompson choked up as he described his lifelong devotion to the Cleveland Browns, who may be moved to Baltimore by Friday, when NFL owners vote on owner Art Modell’s proposed move.

Thompson related how as a boy, he painted team colors on pieces of an electric football game and collected cards of his favorite players. As a grownup, he helped found the “dawg pound,” an energetic group of fans that sat in the same section of seats each week and barked unconditional support.

“I’m just one fan. There are hundreds of thousands of NFL fans across the country that have the same investments that I do and also the same feelings,” Thompson said.

The committee’s chairman, Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., stepped in and gently helped Thompson get back on track after becoming flustered in the big formal hearing room.

“I was kind of nervous,” said Thompson, who testified in his in-season Sunday dress - orange shoes; “dawg” collar, white pants with the team’s brown and orange stripe; a brown team jersey with “Big Dawg” on the back and a big orange “dawg” bone. He carried his dog-faced hat but didn’t wear it in the committee room. When the hearing ended, he was mobbed - by television cameras, members of Congress, congressional aides.

Matt Dwyer, a courier, happened to be walking past the room. He stopped, broke into a big grin, and rushed to tell Thompson how much he supports the Browns fans.

“I almost barked at him,” Dwyer said. “I have a pretty good bark.”

The warm, welcoming reception for “Big Dawg” - and for officials from Florida, Washington and Texas - was nothing like the often hostile, skeptical reception of Tagliabue.

“Before the NFL asks for legislative relief, I would urge it to take some good-faith gestures to respond to the problem of owners blackmailing cities, which I believe are very much of the NFL’s own making,” said Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich.

“As long as the leagues can control the number of franchises, they will continue to be able to pressure state and local governments to make more and more concessions. The only way to stop this form of legalized extortion is for Congress to act,” said Rep. Martin Hoke, R-Ohio, who is sponsor of a bill Tagliabue opposes.

The commissioner told the House committee the same thing he told a Senate committee two weeks earlier: that the NFL needs additional powers in order to keep the league stable and block relocations.

He said court interpretations of antitrust law, and the $50 million price tag of losing a lawsuit by Raiders owner Al Davis, have made football owners reluctant to fight teams that want to migrate.

“Right now we are powerless in this area because of the antitrust uncertainties,” he testified.

Cowboys protect Houck

The Dallas Cowboys have designated offensive line coach Hudson Houck a supervisor coach, and are attempting to negotiate a raise and a new title that would keep him away from the Miami Dolphins.

Houck said he met with Cowboys owner Jerry Jones on Tuesday.

“I talked to Jerry about becoming the assistant head coach, but nothing has been decided yet,” Houck said.

Linebackers’ coach Jim Eddy, who spent the past three seasons with Dallas, replaced Herb Paterra as Detroit Lions defensive coordinator.

Quarterback Troy Aikman had successful arthroscopic surgery on his right elbow in Birmingham, Ala.

Insider trading?

Longtime Oakland Raiders attorney Joe Alioto said it was more than a coincidence the three owners who have most recently announced their teams were moving are members of the NFL Finance Committee.

“I want to make an analogy to insider trading,” Alioto said. “The members of the finance committee until very recently included Mr. Modell, until he embarrassed them.

“The present chairman of the finance committee is Mr. (Bud) Adams of Houston. Another member of the finance committee is Mr. (Ken) Behring of Seattle. You’ve got Behring, Modell and Adams as prominent members of the finance committee.”

It is that committee, Alioto said, which is empowered to receive applications for moves.

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