Just when it looked like the Oilers were going to turn things around, maybe go 5-11, along comes the moving-to-Nashville distraction, forcing you and me and Bob and Elyse and Russ Small and Dale Robertson and everybody else with a modicum of civic pride to come to grips with the nagging question of the hour:
Can we live without the Oilers, or "Mr. Adams' franchise," as we're apparently supposed to be calling the team this season?
It's a question that dozens, hundreds, maybe thousands of Houstonians have invested at least three or four seconds of serious thought in these past few weeks, and the clear, overwhelming, writ-large sentiment seems to be Of course we can.
Granted, the Oilers' desertion would cause some temporary economic dislocations, but probably no more than are wrought in an average week or two of corporate downsizings. We can also concede that there would be some psychological dislocation, too, especially for those damned souls who live to ring up talk radio and wheeze on about the latest quarterback controversy. And many of the rest of us would be left with one less topic of small talk on Monday mornings ("And then, shit, the Bills scored again!").
But there's really no good reason we can't live without the Oilers.
The only argument that anybody is bothering to mount, at least with a straight face, is one with its roots in Houston's collective inferiority complex: that losing the Oilers would somehow diminish the city's stature, somehow make us less than "major league," and, perhaps, embarrassed to admit "I'm from Houston" next time we're at the casino in Lake Charles or Kinder.
But the coin of that realm pretty much has been wholly devalued by the location of NFL franchises in such world-class Greyhound stops as Indianapolis and Jacksonville, towns where visitors often find themselves asking the locals, "Is there another sit-down place around here besides Hooters?"
If Los Angeles can survive, so can Houston.
And we've always got indoor soccer to fall back on.
The idea that big-league sports franchises confer much of anything other than new taxpayers' debt on a municipality was a dated absurdity long before Bud Adams began his search for more skyboxes.
Professional teams are just one of the multitude of entertainment options that now relentlessly vie for our dollars and short attention spans. Their "possession" by a city doesn't mean that much anymore. The value of the franchises has gone through the roof, but their value to cities -- in terms of what it costs to keep the owners happy -- has gone in the opposite direction.
Most of the owners view their properties as merchandising vehicles (for official T-shirts, luxury boxes, television rights, etc.), trading on a phony sense of "hometown" identification and false nostalgia while looking to slide on out of town at the first suggestion a better deal awaits elsewhere -- and it always does, at least for the foreseeable future. It's just a business, and that's what a lot of businesses do these days.
Except most businesses don't enjoy an NFL franchise's right of exclusivity, nor do they operate on the bald-faced assumption that their products have an automatic claim on the public's loyalty and pocketbook.
It's been faintly amusing to watch those interviews with the man-on-the-street in Nashville, made nearly giddy by the thought We're almost bigtime now! Most of those obliging suckers will eventually discover that they'll have to pay a stiff price for a family outing at Nashville's new BudBowl, and not just at the ticket window.
Still, it's all about family, at least according to Adams, whose initial wealth was due to the happy accident of his birth. You may remember that it was about this time last year when the Oilers owner, asked why he was so hell-bent on getting a downtown dome built, draped his arms around his grandsons and explained, "For them."
That's one thing you've got to stand back and admire about Bud Adams: his sense of entitlement is huge, almost awe-inspiring.
It's allowed him to pull off a rare trick, uniting almost the entire city across lines of race, class, religion or whatever. The polls have been taken, the results are in. It's the kind of consensus you rarely see these days in a big, diverse city: almost everybody despises Bud Adams. It's personal. Even the people who can't afford to despise him publicly, like Bob Lanier and Robert Eckels, greeted Adams' latest extortionate demand with a sort of blank stare that suggests losing the Oilers wouldn't be one of the worst things to befall the city, but bending over again for Bud might be high on the list at this particular moment.
It was nice to see the city and county working together to clothesline Adams at the courthouse when it appeared he was going to break his Astrodome lease, and if he goes to Nashville it would be gratifying to see them find grounds to extract some blood for the $70 million in debt the county took on to rejigger the Astrodome to keep him here eight years ago.
In the meantime, we ought to let the Oilers go -- how could Adams keep them here after all this, anyway? If Nashville's mayor can't give away the store, maybe Tuscaloosa's will. Then we can deal with whatever comes next -- improvements to the Astrodome, a new stadium, another franchise, an NFL-less future -- without the distraction. We should do what's best for Bud's grandsons.
-- Jim Simmon