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As usual, we gathered in front of the television last Sunday for the Bears game, but our attitude toward the team was radically altered. This had happened through no fault of the players (though they would soon disillusion the fans in their own unique fashion). It would have been comforting to sink into the game in our usual manner, to obsess over the line play and defensive schemes, with the greatest philosophical issue being whether the Bears could still be considered the Bears if they played more like the late-70s San Diego Chargers than the mid-80s Monsters of the Midway. Yet in light of recent developments such issues--the playful if meaningless debates sport thrives on--seemed frivolous. Were the Bears still the Bears, if they played like the Chargers? Of course they were--if they played in Chicago. And if they didn't, not only were they not the Bears, they weren't worthy of consideration.

The 1990s, it now appears, will be looked back on as the robber-baron era in major-league sports. The current controversy in football, with owners moving their teams to and fro in search of the best deal, or threatening moves to squeeze the best deal out of their current addresses, is simply the next chapter of the baseball strike, the tale now shifting to a different sport. Baseball players refused to give their owners what they demanded, and the result was a calamity that crippled the sport. Football players, whose relatively brief, faceless careers hinder the same bonding with the fans, gave in to the owners on almost everything in their most recent labor agreement. What has been the result? Owners are behaving like the Edward G. Robinson character in the movie Key Largo, who when asked what it is he wants says, "More," and when asked if he has ever gotten enough responds, "Nope, never have."

Baseball owners didn't understand what they were tampering with when they placed short-term financial gains ahead of long-term stability, and football owners are now making the same shortsighted mistake. Baseball fans turned their backs on their game this summer after last year's World Series was canceled. Many football fans could soon do the same--indeed, that process is already under way in Cleveland, which Browns owner Art Modell is abandoning for Baltimore, and in Houston, which the Oilers will leave for Nashville.

Here in Chicago, Mike McCaskey is dangling his team in front of northwest Indiana to force Chicago to sweeten its deal with the Bears, and there's already a spirit of disillusionment in the air. As our friend Buck put it: "I hope the Bears do move--to Fargo, North Dakota."

What's most upsetting is the passive attitude most fans take toward these ownership demands. Well, they say, we better fork it over unless we want to lose the team. And sports owners are business executives, they argue; they're just trying to get the best return on their investment.

This ignores the fact that sports owners may be business executives but they don't play under what we recognize as the traditional rules of the marketplace. Like the robber barons of 100 years ago, they enjoy local monopolies and feel free to charge all the market can bear. But owning a major-league sports franchise is not a license to print money, nor does it give the owner the right to put his team up for bid to the city most willing to line his pockets at the expense of education, law enforcement, and other social services. Sports fans should recognize that just as the federal government cracked down on unfair business practices in the railroad industry in the late 1800s, it can crack down on unfair practices in the sports world.

We should point out that we are not namby-pamby Great Society holdovers who consider government control the answer to everything. If forced to apply a label, we would describe ourself as a laissez-faire liberal who believes that the less government involvement and the more individual freedom--free markets, free speech--the better. But sports franchises do not operate in a free market. If a franchise is being run into the ground it is not the option of some more responsible local entrepreneur to start up a competing franchise; the league itself must remain set, with a fixed schedule, from week to week and season to season. Even within that league there is not free-market parity. If McCaskey were to move to Gary, it would not be possible, say, for Walter Payton to buy another franchise and move it into Soldier Field, because McCaskey could veto the move.

We do not base our argument on an emotional notion of "fan's rights." We base it on the notion that sports owners can't have it both ways: they can't be allowed to operate what amounts to a monopoly and then claim the right to do whatever they want in a free-market economy. The government has a legitimate interest in making sure that their monopoly is not abused. The robber barons abused their public trust and the public cracked down on them. Sports owners are wrong to believe that owning a franchise gives them the right to charge all a fan or a city will bear.

What we propose is a national sports commission on the order of the Federal Trade Commission or Interstate Commerce Commission--perhaps as an independent body within the latter. This commission would have set powers, emphasizing fair dealings in labor negotiations, franchise sales, and franchise movements. Before a team like the Browns could be moved a city would have the right to find another local owner--or even to buy the team itself, along the lines of the arrangement that has kept the Packers alive and well in small-market Green Bay. The commission could seek as a matter of policy to minimize government involvement. Wherever possible, free market principles would be preserved within the monopolistic system of major-league sports.

No doubt at first this idea will be scoffed at, especially given the current trend toward reducing the size of government. And, people will argue, this is sport. With a utility or a rail system, one is dealing with services essential to citizens and businesses. Sport, however, is just sport. Yet just because sport isn't essential to life (a notion we might well contest), team owners do not acquire the right to use practices that have long been illegal in other businesses. Big-league sports exist under a unique set of conditions, and there ought to be an overseeing body to make sure that those conditions are not manipulated to serve an owner's greed.

When a franchise like the Browns, which has been heartily supported for more than 30 years without a championship, can leave a city, which then has no recourse, that's wrong. When a franchise like the Bears, again supported in good years and bad, can blackmail a city into diverting millions of dollars that no doubt would be better spent on education into the pockets of the owner, that's wrong. When an owner like Jerry Reinsdorf can extort the state to pay for a new stadium, and then force upon it a lease where if he screws up and fans abandon his team he doesn't have to pay the rent, that's wrong.

That deal is done. Government regulation is the only option to keep these other deals from consummation.

As for the Bears on the field, after three straight losses we have only one thing to offer; it's an old quote, actually, from coach Bill Walsh: "A pass rush, late in the game, is the key to NFL football."

That's the Bears' on-field problem in a nutshell. Coach Dave Wannstedt made the sound decision, during the off-season, to devote more time and money to offense than to defense. As a defensive specialist, he figured he had more ability to tinker with the defense on the fly during the season. What he didn't foresee was the stagnation of Alonzo Spellman as a pass rusher (there, isn't that the first mention of his name in several weeks?) and the lack of an adequate substitute for sheer ability. Blitzing schemes have left the Bears' coverage barren, but the weak four-man pass rush has given opposing quarterbacks the time to pick apart even the Bears' best pass defense. Quite simply, they're damned if they do and damned if they don't. By last Sunday, with all-pro cornerback Donnell Woolford already out and his replacement, James Burton, going down to injury, the Bears were asking for a day in which they'd be strafed for over 400 yards of opposing offense--much of it supplied by a backup quarterback, Don Majkowski, whose best days are behind him. Late in the game there is no substitute for a good pass rush, and without it all other strengths are meaningless.

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