Sunday, November 21, 1999

Mike Brown not the villain in this farce




BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Here's a novel idea. Outrageous, really. Let's lay off Mike Brown for a while. Not forever, of course. There's still the matter of his miserable football team.

        Let's just leave him alone long enough to spread the blame around.

        All week long we have been wringing our hands over the latest indignities visited upon us by the villainous owner of the Bengals. Not letting the peewees play on his field. Not allowing the Reds to put grass on their field. These things are in addition to the routine indignity of his team's performance.

        Mike Brown is not the point. He is not even the villain.

        He was not stealthy or inconsistent. We had no reason — ever — to suspect he would be a civic leader on the order of, say, somebody who had chaired a United Appeal campaign. Or given a wing to a hospital. Or even an elephant to the zoo.

Who? Us? Chumps?
        In the midst of our bleating about being fleeced, we should remember what lambs we were.

        Citizens for a Major League Future spent a million dollars on the pitch: “Dozens of cities would love to steal our major league image. They want it, but we've got it. Let's keep it.” Television and radio ads, thousands of phone calls and 10,000 yard signs. About $300,000 of that money came from the Bengals.

        Chump change.

        And we were the chumps.

        In March 1996, Hamilton County approved a half-cent-on-a-dollar county sales tax increase to finance new stadiums for the Reds and the Bengals. A survey found that 48 percent of those who voted “Yes” did so because “It will help keep Cincinnati a major league city.”

        We didn't ask enough questions and took too much on faith. We were told — many times — that the cost of two new stadiums would be $544 million. The next thing we knew the football stadium alone had a price tag of $404 million. And three new practice fields on the river.

        Furthermore, the county's lease with the team dictates, for example, that no buildings taller than two stories will be built between Race Street and Paul Brown Stadium south of Third Street. So, the Bengals organization will have veto power over the proposal for a new neighborhood between the stadiums.

        “We are hoping that the Bengals will be good neighbors,” says Charlotte Otto, a member of the Riverfront Advisory Commission.

        Fat chance.

        Worst-case scenario is that the county will go back to the table, and the Bengals will emerge with an option on our back teeth and the right to decide what kind of cars we are allowed to drive past the stadium.

Nothing left to give
        We really don't have anything else left to give. And if Mike Brown thumbs his nose at the Reds' plea for grass, if he rubs our noses in his negotiated right to control the riverfront, then we have to put the blame where it belongs. On the deal.

        Mr. Brown was looking out for his interests. Hamilton County commissioners, led by Bob Bedinghaus, were supposed to look out for ours.

        Mr. Brown makes a tempting target. He gives us absolutely no excuse to like him. Instead of allowing a debate about whether little kids ought to be able to play inside his sports palace, he could have been handing out jerseys with “I'm a Major League Kid” on them. When Barry Larkin's beloved knees became an issue in the turf war, he could have promised he'd make sure the Reds had grass if he had to go down there with his own lawnmower.

        Back when Hamilton County voters still held some bargaining chips, Mike Brown appeared a few times in public for an occasional photo op. Not anymore. We can scream all we want, but our elected representatives have signed on the dotted line. And, at every opportunity, we are ruthlessly held to the deal.

        Mike Brown doesn't care what we think.

        He doesn't have to.

        E-mail Laura Pulfer at laurapulfer@enquirer.com or call 768-8393. Author of I Beg to Differ, she appears Mondays on WVXU radio.