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NFL to Settle Lawsuit Over Rams’ Departure for $790 Million

The N.F.L. has agreed to pay the city and county of St. Louis $790 million to settle a four-year dispute over whether the league broke its own relocation guidelines to pave the way for the Rams to move to Los Angeles in 2016, according to two people who spoke on condition of anonymity. A league spokesman confirmed that a settlement had been reached, but declined to confirm the amount.

In a civil suit, a group that included the city, the county and the St. Louis Regional Convention and Sports Complex Authority said Rams executives, N.F.L. officials and other teams’ owners had encouraged the group to try to build a new stadium to keep the franchise. Officials in St. Louis spent $17 million on designs and plans for a new stadium, but the league disregarded those efforts without explanation and team owners voted to allow the Rams to move to California, the complaint said.

Rams owner Stanley Kroenke, who in recent weeks tried to narrow the scope of his liability in the case, is expected to reimburse the league for the settlement.

The payout comes on top of the $550 million relocation fee that Kroenke paid to the N.F.L. for the right to move to Los Angeles. He has also spent roughly $5 billion to build SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Calif., which the Rams share with the Los Angeles Chargers, and which will host the Super Bowl in February.

The victory for St. Louis is bittersweet. While the money from the settlement will help make up some of the financial losses from tourism and entertainment fees, it will not atone for the psychic damage of watching a second N.F.L. franchise depart.

In 1988, the city lost the Cardinals, who moved to Arizona. St. Louis lured the Rams from Anaheim, Calif., in 1995, in part because it had already constructed a domed stadium, but the lease with the N.F.L. franchise gave the team opportunities to seek other options for venues later.

The city’s fears grew when, in 2013, Kroenke bought the Hollywood Park Racetrack, which sat on 260 acres of land in Inglewood, Calif. The Rams then would not commit to a long-term deal to stay in St. Louis, raising the likelihood of a relocation.

To fight back, the then-governor of Missouri, Jay Nixon, formed a task force that developed a plan for a new outdoor stadium near the Mississippi River that included a naming rights partner and public funding to cover some construction costs.

At the same time, a committee of six N.F.L. owners recommended that the league allow the Chargers and Raiders, who also sought new venues, to build a stadium together in Carson, Calif. Yet in January 2016, the entire cohort of league owners voted 30-2 to let the Rams move to Los Angeles. As a consolation, the Chargers were given the right to move in to the Rams’ new home if they could not secure a new stadium in San Diego.

In 2017, a team of lawyers that included Bob Blitz, a member of the Missouri task force, sued the league on behalf of the city and county of St. Louis, and of the stadium authority, which no longer had the Rams as an anchor tenant.

“The Rams and the N.F.L. knew that Plaintiffs were spending vast amounts of time and money to develop a new stadium complex financing plan and encouraged Plaintiffs’ commitments through misrepresentations regarding the process and the Rams’ intent,” the lawyers wrote in their complaint.

The settlement, which came just weeks before a trial was set to begin in St. Louis, was a rare and very public defeat for the N.F.L. The league fought the lawsuit because it did not want to set a settlement precedent or open the door for an adverse ruling that would invite other cities in the future to sue the league after their teams’ departures.

But the prospect of team owners being forced to testify about how the league makes the decision that a team can move, and potential damages that could surpass $1 billion, led the league to reach an agreement.

The N.F.L. has fended off lawsuits from cities that it abandoned before. Most recently, the city of Oakland, Calif., sued the league after the Raiders were allowed to move to Las Vegas in 2017. But that suit, which is under appeal, was filed in federal court.

St. Louis filed its suit in state court, and the judge in the case repeatedly rebuffed the league’s efforts to move the trial. Much of the case remained under seal, but the league had suffered a string of defeats and a trial in front of a jury of a dozen Missouri residents had been likely until the league decided to settle.

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Bob Blitz Held the NFL to Task Over the Rams’ Relocation

In a separate deposition in October 2020, N.F.L. Commissioner Roger Goodell was pressed repeatedly on the question at the heart of the lawsuit: Did the N.F.L.’s team owners ignore their own relocation guidelines when they voted to allow the Rams to move? Goodell gave elusive responses on whether the owners had considered each of 12 predetermined factors or if they’d voted merely because a Los Angeles deal was available.

“And I will say it again that I think the ownership was very responsible in considering all of the various factors and really understanding the key issues and ultimately made a decision which is in the best interest of the N.F.L.,” Goodell said, according to a partial transcript of the deposition.

The realization that an answer like that was unlikely to satisfy a jury of Missouri residents, combined with the prospect of several N.F.L. owners being called to testify, made settling the case a more pragmatic option than opening a trial on Jan. 10, just weeks before the Super Bowl is scheduled to be played at SoFi Stadium, the splashy $5 billion venue in Inglewood, Calif., that Kroenke built after moving the team west.

In deciding to settle for $790 million, the N.F.L. closed its responsibility to Blitz and a city that has lost not just the Rams, but also the Cardinals, who left for Arizona after the 1987 season. But the league provided precedent for other scorned cities.

“The host cities may actually begin to gain leverage back,” said Daniel Wallach, a sports and gambling lawyer who has tracked the case.

For the N.F.L., the agreement ensures that a public rendering won’t happen and keeps private the juicy details of league business contained in the many documents pertaining to the lawsuit. It also ensures that the backbiting between team owners stays in house.

Before the league opted to settle, Kroenke and the other team owners appeared to be at each others’ throats as he, according to multiple news outlets, attempted to free himself of the indemnification agreement that held him liable for legal expenses and potential damages related to relocation litigation.

Now, Kroenke may have to pay for most or all of the settlement.

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China’s Silence on Peng Shuai Shows Limits of Beijing’s Propaganda

When the Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai accused a former top leader of sexual assault earlier this month, the authorities turned to a tried-and-true strategy. At home, the country’s censors scrubbed away any mention of the allegations. Abroad, a few state-affiliated journalists focused narrowly on trying to quash concerns about Ms. Peng’s safety.

Beijing seems to be relying on a two-pronged approach of maintaining the silence and waiting for the world to move on. The approach suggests that the country’s sprawling propaganda apparatus has limited options for shifting the narrative without drawing more attention to the uncomfortable allegations Beijing hopes would just disappear.

On China’s social media platforms and other digital public squares, the censors’ meticulous work has left almost no sign that Ms. Peng had ever accused Zhang Gaoli, a former vice premier, of sexual assault. Like a museum to a previous reality, her social media account remains, without new updates or comments.

These tactics have worked for China in the past, at least at home. In recent years, officials have relied on heavy censorship and a nationalistic narrative of Western meddling to deflect blame for issues including the outbreak of Covid-19 and human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

This time, though, the #MeToo accusation from a lauded and patriotic athlete implicating a top leader has no simple solution from Beijing’s propaganda toolbox. Any new narrative would most likely have to acknowledge the allegations in the first place and require the approval of top Chinese leaders.

“The central propaganda bureau does not dare go out on its own about a former Standing Committee member,” said Deng Yuwen, a former editor of a Communist Party newspaper, referring to Mr. Zhang’s position in the body that holds ultimate power in the party. “It would have to be approved by Xi Jinping.”

“For them, this is not just a propaganda matter, but also an issue of national security,” continued Mr. Deng, who now lives in the United States.

The level of censorship Beijing deployed to shut down discussion of Ms. Peng’s allegation has little precedent, said Xiao Qiang, a research scientist at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley.

To the Chinese authorities, the plan of action for now appears to be one of inaction. On overseas sites like Twitter and Facebook that are blocked in China, the response has been muted and fragmentary. When Beijing-backed journalists have addressed Ms. Peng on overseas social media sites, they have studiously avoided mentioning the nature of her accusations, or their target.

Instead, they have sought to put an end to the questions about Ms. Peng’s whereabouts, releasing photos and videos of the tennis star that seemed designed to show that she was safe despite having disappeared from public life. Ms. Peng also appeared in a live video call with the leader of the International Olympic Committee that only raised more concerns.

To some, the apparent stage-managing of Ms. Peng was a reminder of the authorities’ use of forced confessions and other video testimony from detainees for propaganda. In 2019, a state run news service ran a “proof of life” video of Abdurehim Heyit, a prominent Uyghur folk poet and musician, to quell international concerns that he had died in an internment camp.

When Peter Dahlin, a Swedish activist, was detained by the authorities in 2016, he was forced to speak in a Chinese propaganda video about his so-called crimes. He said in a recent interview that he saw the state media’s gradual release of photos and videos of Ms. Peng as evidence that Beijing was monitoring her movements mainly to silence her while waiting for the outcry to die down.

“She is obviously under custodial control,” Mr. Dahlin said. “Everything she does will be scripted from beginning to end; she will be told exactly what to do, how to act, how to smile.”

A waiting game has helped Beijing defang attacks from individual critics in the past, be they dissidents or sports stars. When Hao Haidong, a retired Chinese soccer star, called for the downfall of the Chinese Communist Party in 2020, officials purged records of his career and waited as he faded from memory. Though Ms. Peng brings more international backing, Chinese officials may be betting the social media cycle of shock and anger will eventually dissipate.

For Beijing, the concern is that the blowback could interfere with the upcoming Winter Olympics, which China is hosting.

“They have to placate not just the usual critics in the West, but also decidedly apolitical tennis stars and sporting associations overseas, while at the same time burying all mention of Ms. Peng’s original charge,” said Richard McGregor, a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute in Australia and author of “The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers.”

“It’s no surprise that the propaganda system is floundering,” he said.

In a strange turn, the only recent post about Ms. Peng that remains on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, is from the French Embassy in China. It calls on Beijing to respect its commitments to combating violence against women. But the seemingly curated comments on the post accused France of meddling in China’s affairs. Along similar lines, some Chinese journalists took to Western social media sites to question the motives of those who expressed concern about Ms. Peng.

“Can any girl fake such sunny smile under pressure? Those who suspect Peng Shuai is under duress, how dark they must be inside,” Hu Xijin, the editor of the nationalist Global Times tabloid, wrote on Twitter.

The narrative that Ms. Peng is being used by hostile foreign forces to undermine China has been echoed by other state media employees on Twitter. The posts have done little to appease concerns outside China.

“There’s no narrative even to really distract; there’s nothing substantive beyond character attacks on the West and Western media,” said David Bandurski, director of the China Media Project, a research program in Hong Kong. He added, “This is really the best they’ve been able to come up with.”

Within China, it remains unclear how many people are aware of the controversy. On Baidu, a Chinese search engine, queries for “Peng Shuai” spiked to nearly two million on Nov. 3, the day after she posted her accusation, but have since fallen to the tens of thousands. Ms. Peng’s frozen Weibo account, which does not appear in search results for her name, has gained 59,000 followers since her post — a blip in a country where top celebrities have tens of millions of followers.

Mr. Xiao, the research scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, is the founder of China Digital Times, a website that monitors Chinese internet controls. His group has tracked hundreds of keywords, some with only the faintest connection to Ms. Peng, that had been blocked from posts and searches. Only the most sensitive topics — like Xi Jinping, China’s leader; and the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989 — have such long lists of blocked terms, he said.

In the weeks since, censors have begun to fine-tune their approach. Some broad keywords, like “tennis,” have been restored in searches. Still, Mr. Xiao said, the wide gulf between what can be said outside China and what can be said inside the country could continue to plague attempts to control the topic.

“They know they cannot feel secure. The Great Firewall leaks,” he said, using a term that refers to China’s blocks and filters that keep out foreign social media. “Millions of people jump the wall to read about it.”

Amy Chang Chien contributed reporting.

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Brian Kelly Leaves Notre Dame for LSU

Brian Kelly will leave Notre Dame to become the football coach at Louisiana State, the latest in a series of changes at some of the country’s most storied college football programs.

The news was confirmed Tuesday morning by L.S.U.

The hiring follows the move of Lincoln Riley from Oklahoma to Southern California. Both shifts surprised the college football world, where coaches do not regularly leave elite programs voluntarily, and created enticing vacancies at the universities Riley and Kelly left behind.

The Fighting Irish finished the regular season 11-1 this year and, if a top team loses, could earn a berth in the College Football Playoff. Notre Dame was ranked sixth in the most recent rankings for the four-team playoff. The new rankings will be released on Tuesday night.

Kelly had seemed like an institution at Notre Dame after 12 years in the top job. He had a national championship game appearance in the 2012 season and a 113-40 overall record. (The wins in the championship game season were later vacated by the N.C.A.A. after a trainer was found to have done coursework for players.) This season, Kelly surpassed Knute Rockne with the most wins as a coach for the university.

As unusual as it is for a head coach with Kelly’s success to leave a program that is still in the playoff hunt, his move could potentially position him to finally win a national championship, something he could not do at Notre Dame. Kelly lacks a top tier bowl victory, with losses in the Fiesta, Cotton and Rose Bowls, along with the national championship game loss.

And Notre Dame, despite Kelly’s elite recruiting (he has produced a top-20 class every season since taking over the head coaching job in 2010), appeared severely outmatched in its recent playoff appearances, losing to Alabama and Clemson by a combined 44 points.

Louisiana has one of the most ripe recruiting grounds in the country. L.S.U. has had a class outside the top 10 only twice since 2010. Kelly will have access to as much talent as he has seen.

L.S.U. won the national championship after the 2019 season, only to fall to 5-5 in 2020. Coach Ed Orgeron announced this would be his last season in October, when his team was 4-3. The Tigers currently stand 6-6. Like his predecessor, Les Miles, he found that not even a national title guaranteed long-term job security in Baton Rouge.

L.S.U. reported that Kelly would be paid $95 million over 10 years, plus incentives, a significant increase from a salary believed to be in the $3 million range at Notre Dame.

“I could not be more excited to join a program with the commitment to excellence, rich traditions, and unrivaled pride and passion,” Kelly said in a statement that L.S.U. released Tuesday morning. He added: “I am fully committed to recruiting, developing, and graduating elite student-athletes, winning championships, and working together with our administration to make Louisiana proud. Our potential is unlimited, and I cannot wait to call Baton Rouge home.”

Scott Woodward, the university’s athletic director, called Kelly “the epitome of a winner.”

Reports had initially linked L.S.U. with Riley, who over the weekend denied he would take the job before he moved to U.S.C. There also had been in-state support for the University of Louisiana coach Billy Napier, but he chose to go to Florida.

Luring Kelly from Notre Dame, though, was an even bigger surprise.

Kelly started his career at Grand Valley State in Michigan, where he won two Division II national titles. He then spent three years at Central Michigan and four at Cincinnati, culminating in an undefeated regular season. That landed him the Notre Dame job.

The hiring of Kelly at L.S.U. helps keep the Southeastern Conference at the center of the college football universe: The conference has recently added the powerhouse teams Texas and Oklahoma, and its members Alabama and L.S.U. have won four of the seven national championships in the playoff era.

Another Southeastern Conference team, Georgia, is undefeated and No. 1 in the country this year. It will face Alabama (11-1), third in the playoff rankings, in the conference championship game on Saturday in Atlanta.

Alan Blinder and Alanis Thames contributed reporting.

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