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No, the real score is that the owners object to DeBartolo playing the Easter Bunny to his team: the secret bonuses to players for performance, the "country-club atmosphere" of the Niners' lavish facilities, the endless gifts, the outrageous salaries. Backup quarterback Steve Young makes $1.1 million a year for running a nice clipboard. Smerlas makes $750,000 and won't start. Dumb money? Have a look.
Take the Neiman-Marcus certificates. Why give them? "Because if he can't win a player's heart, he might win the wife's," says backup tight end Jamie Williams, formerly of the Oilers. "I know that my wife is a lot more understanding now. She'll say, 'You've got to get your workout in today, don't you?' Now she feels part of something."
Take how DeBartolo treats his players on the road. They get the best security (a phalanx of guards escorts them from locker room to bus, from bus into hotel, and so on), each player has a hotel room to himself, and the planes are big enough for each player to have at least two seats, a luxury. DeBartolo's private chef always has prime rib on the in-flight menu. It probably doesn't make a difference, but then again, the Niners had the best road record in the NFL in the '80s.
Their new practice facility in Santa Clara is named the Marie P. DeBartolo Sports Centre, after Eddie Jr.'s mom, but the players call it the Taj. It's got a 30' x 40' hydrotherapy spa, racquetball courts, a steam room, a picnic area and a huge locker room, where each player has a bronze plaque engraved with his individual achievements. The players want to fill the plaques up, and when they do, they fill up Eddie's trophy case at the same time. Is that so bad?
During the Niners' stir-frying of the Vikings in the playoffs this year, Vikings were helping Niners up after tackles and asking, "Hey, man, tell me how I can play for Mr. D." And when the NFL finally installs a salary cap, those players will still be beating down DeBartolo's door. Underneath the eye black, NFL players are still people, and people like to be treated like human beings.
The other owners will probably win the battle, but DeBartolo will win the war. NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue is expected to rule on DeBartolo's case this month, and Eddie expects to be fined. But when that's done, he also expects Tagliabue to push to rewrite the league's bylaws and "bring the league into the 21st century," allowing the DeBartolo Corp. to continue to own the Niners.
What then? What will DeBartolo have left to prove? Careerwise, he's 6'3". What's next?
"Maybe baseball," says Candy. DeBartolo has played footsie with the San Francisco Giants for years, pondering whether to buy the team, build a stadium near the Taj in Santa Clara and move the Giants there. Then again, he is still the heir to the throne of a conglomerate that exerts a powerful influence on everyday American life. He also owns Power Burst energy drink and Murex Clinical, a corporation that is trying to market a 10-minute, at-home AIDS test.
Still, DeBartolo toys with the idea of moving to San Francisco and commuting to Youngstown. Two of his daughters, Lisa and Tiffanie, will be in the Bay Area attending college for the next two years, and who knows how small they're cutting their meat? "This company doesn't need a dictator anymore," he says. "It doesn't need a DeBartolo there every moment."