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Monday, July 03, 2006

SI's Michael Silver Tells Denise Debartolo York To Give The 49ers Back to Eddie Debatolo

And I agree. Mike's rather funny "letter" to her, recently posted on the SI website, is chocked full of good observations on how the NFL would welcome "Mr. D" back to football.

It's worth reading. But in case SI takes it down, here it is:

Dear Mrs. York,

I know we haven't spoken much over the years, and your husband and I certainly won't be yukking it up on the golf course anytime soon, so I thought I'd try writing.

Simply put, I have some free advice for you, a small suggestion that can get you the key to the city of San Francisco and a free pass to heaven (upon reaching the afterlife) in one bold stroke.

Give your brother back his football team.

There, I said it. And if you've got a few minutes, I'll explain everything.

Why listen to me, you ask? Having grown up in L.A. rooting for the 49ers before your family purchased the franchise, I know what it's like to be the maligned standard-bearer of an impotent organization, and I can relate to the ridicule and scorn to which you and some of your family members are subjected by the 49ers faithful. Having covered Joe Montana on a daily basis -- and, not coincidentally, having parlayed my years as a Niners beat writer for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat into a gig covering the NFL for Sports Illustrated -- I am qualified to comment on miracle comebacks.

In your case, it will take a doozy ... the ownership equivalent of The Catch. After staying in the shadows while your brother, Eddie DeBartolo, became the best owner in sports, presiding over a franchise that won five Super Bowls in 14 years and went nearly two decades without a losing streak, you took over the team, ceded managing power to your husband, John, and watched the organization plummet to laughingstock status. I could (and will) give a long, sordid detailing of the 49ers' demise, but the Cliffs Notes version is that the product on the field stinks, and many of your employees hate coming to work each day.

Back to Eddie for a moment: You may have seen my story in last week's SI -- or perhaps you've read some of the reaction pieces, many of them irresponsibly reported, in which a quote from your brother expressing his desire to get back into the NFL, and even pondering the idea of buying the Raiders and moving them to L.A., is somehow proven to be "wrong." It has also been erroneously reported that he and I had this conversation at the Super Bowl Reunion gala he threw in Vegas a couple of months ago, which is a tale as tall as the replica Eiffel Tower behind the Paris Hotel and Casino where the event was staged.

But I digress. The story's most important revelation was that, according to Jerry Jones and another prominent NFL owner, they'd lobby their peers to approve your brother's re-entry should he attempt to purchase a team. Both insist Eddie would be approved, and with commissioner Paul Tagliabue set to retire and a new wave of progressive owners in place, I believe them.

That is a somewhat stunning development, given the way in which Eddie made his inglorious exit eight years ago. Certainly you remember it well, since you and your husband had front-row seats. Embroiled in a Louisiana gaming scandal that would soon land him under federal indictment -- Eddie had been shaken down by former governor Edwin Edwards while attempting to secure a riverboat casino license -- your brother followed the advice of his closest confidante, then-49ers president Carmen Policy, and ceded control of the team to you, who owned the other 50 percent. Tagliabue, fearful of the investigation's gambling overtones and potential legal consequences, approved of the switch as well.

From that point on, Eddie was considered toxic waste, a disgraced felon-to-be who'd never again be allowed to come within 500 feet of an NFL owners' meeting. He ended up pleading to a reasonably minor felony -- failing to report an extortion attempt -- and was given two years' probation. He also paid a $1 million fine to the NFL.

But the real killer for Eddie was that despite more than a year's worth of behind-the-scenes maneuverings in an effort to regain control of the team, he lost his pride and joy. Other than his wife and daughters, the 49ers were what Eddie loved most, and -- let's not mince words -- you played a significant role in taking them away. Sure, as Eddie would admit, his own recklessness and awful judgment made the takeover possible in the first place. But rather than serving as a supportive sibling, you reacted more like a scorned spouse or punitive parent, blocking his attempts to regain control. Finally, you gave up your share of the family real-estate empire in exchange for a franchise that, it seems to me, you had very little desire to operate.

Now, even though I probably could, I'm not going to rehash every petty detail in the blood feud between you and your brother. If he has taken the high road and forgiven you, at least to the point where the two of you speak semiregularly (even if he and your husband most assuredly don't), it's not my place to instigate.

That said, let me at least remind you of the rage you reportedly felt when Eddie's legal problems and free spending coalesced: You made a point of taking away his private jet, as if to reprimand him for his impunity. I imagine that you, as the hardworking, clean-living, behind-the-scenes achiever, resented the way your brother, with his charm and largesse, sucked up the bulk of the attention while sometimes screwing up along the way.

I'm sure you had your reasons for being angry, and none of us -- and certainly not your brother -- is perfect. From what I can tell, you are a woman who has done many, many generous and noble things for various charities and organizations. Your aversion to publicity seems utterly sincere (we all remember the time you made a mad dash out of a luxury box to avoid those Monday Night Football cameras), and under your husband's management the franchise slowly seems to be making some hopeful strides.

On the other hand, things aren't exactly Super in San Francisco. The team has gone 13-35 over the past three seasons. The once-lengthy waiting list for season tickets has all but dried up, and the stadium situation is deplorable. That bond measure to allocate public funding to help build a mall and stadium complex in Hunter's Point, the one that narrowly passed after your brother and Policy's indefatigable campaigning? It's all but dead, and there doesn't seem to be a viable alternative on the horizon.

I could go on and on about the mess of a front office, how a bunch of whiz kids who think they're the NFL's answer to Moneyball buzz around the halls of the team facility acting like every other league talent evaluator is misguided. Instead I'll keep it positive: Mike Nolan seems to be a capable head coach, and I applaud you for being willing to spend more money on player salaries since he arrived.

Still, it's hard for me to believe that you're passionate about owning this football team. Your husband seems to enjoy being the man in charge, and word is that he now hopes to groom your son Jed as his successor.

That's one vision. Now here's a better one: Rid yourself of this headache. Move on. Do the practical thing. Do the right thing.

Look, it's not that complicated. Your brother has tons of money now and wants back into the NFL. The other owners would welcome him back. Forget all this talk about the Raiders, Saints and Bucs. Sell the team to Eddie and they'll hold a parade down Market Street in your honor.

Oh, and while you're at it, could you switch the uniforms back to the old red-and-gold?

Michael Silver

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