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Out of the West: Washington on the warpath over Redskins

WASHINGTON - Like Presidents they are courted. Mayors of great cities and governors of states dance like puppets to their every whim. They are offered kings' ransoms for their favours. They are exempt from their country's ferocious anti- trust legislation. Not for them the rules of competition.

Who are these fortunate individuals? They are, as Washington is discovering to its horror, the owners of America's major league sports franchises.

With the election barely three months off this may be the high season of politics. But if one thing exercises Washington's collective mind more than politics, it is the fate of the city's one indigenous, non-political jewel, the Washington Redskins football team.

Eight months ago, on their way to their umpteenth Superbowl, the Redskins ran into a little bother over their name, held to be an insult to American Indians. But now true disaster looms. If present plans hold, Jack Kent Cooke, the Redskins' Canadian-born owner, may simply take the team out of the District of Columbia lock, stock and barrel.

At first you wonder why all the fuss. Geographically the proposed move is a tiny one - just five miles into northern Virginia and Potomac Yard, a decaying railway freight depot.

For years the 54,000-seat RFK Stadium, the Redskins' current home just beyond Capitol Hill, has been far too small. So what more obvious solution than for Mr Cooke to build a new 78,600-capacity stadium which, had it been settled sooner, could well have been the venue of the final of the soccer World Cup, to be hosted by the US in 1994?

Matters, alas, are not so simple. In some respects the US may be a uniquely homogenous country. But when it comes to sports teams and their stadiums, America's modern metropolises are rivals as fierce as medieval Italian city states.

New Yorkers of a certain age can still be heard to lament that their city's true decline began when the Dodgers and Giants baseball teams left for the West Coast in that baleful year of 1958. Washington's present agony is no less acute. It lost its baseball team in 1971, and its basketball and ice-hockey teams play in Maryland. Were the capital to lose the Redskins, it would be without a major sports franchise for the first time this century.

Here the owners of the country's 26 major league baseball teams and 28 football teams call every shot. They operate veritable cartels, with no promotion, no relegation and no newcomers. They can sell franchises where and to whom they please.

Last year, true, two baseball expansion franchises were created and auctioned off at dollars 95m ( pounds 50m) apiece, but that was the exception. You may start a a company or even a new political party from scratch - but not a major league sports team. No wonder cities are desperate to cling to the ones they have.

Baltimore, having just splashed out dollars 100m on a new baseball stadium to keep the Orioles in town, is now ready to spend as much on another one, to attract a football team.

And so to the great melodrama of the Redskins, DC, and the state of Virginia. Imagine the owners of Liverpool FC negotiating in vain with the city fathers for a subsidised, brand new Anfield. They cannot get the terms they want, so secretly they hold talks with Warrington New Town. One morning, to Merseyside's horror, the announcement comes: Warrington will pay for a custom designed stadium: the Reds are going and Anfield can rot.

That in a nutshell is what has happened here. Mr Cooke has been talking to DC authorities about a new Redskins stadium but to no avail. 'You know, my dear lady, you're just like my wife,' he is said to have remarked to Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly.

A fortnight ago the bombshell duly arrived. Mr Cooke had agreed with the Virginia Governor, Douglas Wilder, on Potomac Yard. The project will cost Mr Cooke dollars 160m, but sweetened with revenue rights that will permit him to cover the outlay in six or seven years. Mr Wilder is throwing in dollars 130m of Virginia taxpayers' money, which is unlikely to be recouped quite so fast.

Environmentalists, local protest groups and of course Mayor Kelly are up in arms: if she loses the Redskins, she is most likely to lose her job as well. Mr Wilder, however, sees the capture of the team as the perfect springboard for his expected bid for a US Senate seat in 1994. The outcome is uncertain. Maybe it will be farewell to the Washington Redskins, and a politically correct welcome to the Potomac Yard Native Americans. Maybe a city's pride will yet be saved. One way or another, though, Mr Cooke will have his way.