Commentary: The Redskins Deal: Is The Nfl Playing Fair?

The latest Washington scandal has more to do with touchdowns than titillation--but it's messy nonetheless. With the subtlety of a blitzing linebacker, the National Football League has signaled that it's not wild about seeing the Redskins go to a group led by New York real estate mogul Howard Milstein, his brother Edward, and Daniel M. Snyder, a Maryland businessman--despite their colossal $800 million bid.

The league has hired Terry Lenzner, President Clinton's personal gumshoe, to run background checks on the investors. And BUSINESS WEEK has learned that six owners are ready to reject the Milstein bid at an NFL meeting in mid-March. If two more vote no, the deal is dead.

Maybe owners are afraid of another Jerry Jones, who angered the NFL by entering into private sponsorship deals for his Dallas Cowboys. "We don't want franchise owners driven by financial decisions," says Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, head of the NFL finance committee, and the man who's moving the Pats to Hartford for very lucrative reasons. Or maybe Milstein's hardnosed tactics after buying hockey's New York Islanders in 1998 have them scared.

But what's really at issue is the owners' desire to keep the team with one of their own: John Kent Cooke, son of former Skins owner Jack Kent Cooke. The elder Cooke was part of the NFL's old guard. He named his new stadium after himself and cut off season tickets to neighbors he disliked. Cooke left 10% of the team to son John and 90% to his charitable foundation--and asked that John be given consideration as the new owner. The estate's trustees had a fiduciary responsibility to get the best price for the team, but John's offer, $680 million, was expected to carry the day. Few expected the blowout bid from Milstein & Co.

So the other 30 owners are facing the prospect of teaching their secret handshake to a strong-willed billionaire with no ties to the fraternity. Some of them might not like it, but Millstein won. The NFL is a club, but it is also the guardian of one of America's favorite games. And the league's field ought to be at least as level as the gridiron.

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