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St. Louis’s Super Bowl: Confusion About the Rams—and Contempt for Stan Kroenke

In the city the Rams left three years ago, a St. Louis native says, fans aren’t quite sure what to think about Super Bowl 53. But one thing is certain: their hatred of the homegrown owner who talked down the town as an excuse to abandon it.

ST. LOUIS — There’s a sports bar about two miles down the road from where I grew up in Ladue, Mo., a close-in suburb of St. Louis. It’s called Sportsman’s Park, named after the long-gone stadium that housed two major league teams and, briefly, the NFL’s Cardinals. The bar is covered with memorabilia and photos of St. Louis sports icons; it’s like a walk-in bulletin board that happens to serve amazing hamburgers, and when I say it’s a sports bar, I’m using that term loosely. Really, it’s a place where parents take their kids to explain who Jack Buck was and how the Arizona Cardinals once played here, and after about 9 p.m., I suppose, the dining room slows and a handful of people remain to drink Budweisers and white wine.

After the Rams won the Super Bowl in 2000, Sportsman’s devoted a good chunk of one of its walls to an almost life-sized photo of the team’s then-owner, Georgia Frontiere, hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. Mounted on top of that photo was an autographed Kurt Warner jersey. The shrine remained for a few years, until Warner left in 2004 and Marc Bulger took over under center. His jersey went up, replacing Warner’s. Eventually, that would be traded out for Sam Bradford’s. But in the waning years of the Rams’ stay in St. Louis, Sportsman’s moved on—or I suppose, moved back. The Rams QB of the moment—Nick Foles, Case Keenum, whoever—was irrelevant. The team wasn’t fielding anything close to a roster designed to win games. Its owner, native Missourian Stan Kroenke, was reviled as he schemed to move the team to Los Angeles.

And so out of storage came the Warner jersey and Frontiere’s smiling face, which are still on display. So what if Frontiere passed away in 2008 and her children sold her 60% ownership stake to Kroenke? She and Warner are still beloved, because as much as St. Louis claims it hates the Rams, it adored them once. It adored them when its owner was focused on winning games in the eyesore of a dome in downtown St. Louis that the city built just for the Rams. It adored them when they adored it, because if one thing in this confusing breakup is true, it’s that the Rams gave up on St. Louis before the city gave up on them.

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Over the past two weeks, sportswriters have parachuted into town from around the country to try to understand what’s going on here. Still more have gotten on the phone with civic leaders and bar owners and painted their own pictures. I’m certain that if I’d had the misfortune to have been born somewhere other than in this strange, loyalty-inspiring outpost on the Mississippi, I’d have spent less time dissecting these pieces, but I can’t help it. In them, St. Louis this week is a city spurned. Or it’s a city that secretly still loves the Rams, or it’s giddy to cheer for the Patriots, or it’s doing so reluctantly, or it’s not going to watch the Super Bowl at all. It’s litigious, suing the Rams for anything and everything. It’s all those things, probably, but more than anything, I think, it’s a city that’s confused about just what on earth it’s supposed to feel.

On Sunday, a week out from St. Louis’s Super Bowl From Hell, I grabbed a beer with a friend of mine who’s a columnist at the local newspaper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Every time he writes about the Rams, he says, he gets a slew of emails; some people hate them, and almost as many say they still love the players, still cheer for them, even. This friend of mine is a recognizable guy, and in the two or so hours we were catching up, multiple people approached him to solicit his opinion. They weren’t there to praise him for his column urging St. Louis to cheer for the Saints in the NFC Championship Game, or to argue with him for turning his back on the Rams. They just wanted to know what on earth they should do, which team they should cheer for, why they’re unsettled by both options.

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St. Louis is having an existential crisis, and neither outcome on Sunday is going to feel good. Kroenke with the Lombardi will feel worst. No one around here hates Sean McVay or Aaron Donald or Jared Goff or Todd Gurley. Hell, people actually like Donald and Gurley, the only two bright spots of the Rams’ final years here, when Jeff Fisher refined mediocrity to a science with the job security of Bill Belichick. Everyone, though, hates Kroenke. St. Louis is a proud place, a little too big for its britches. If it comes out someday that babies born here are secretly given some sort of Mississippi River mud KoolAid after birth, it wouldn’t shock me. I moved away from the area 13 years ago, but I still maintain that this place does things better than anywhere else, that I love stifling humidity and cracker-thin pizza crust and five-hour baseball games. Deep in my soul, I really do, and so does everyone else I grew up with. That’s why what Kroenke did is so unfathomable. We thought he was one of us: if not a St. Louisan, then at least undeniably a Missourian.

St. Louis is a misunderstood place, a city that boomed a century ago and then had a lot of things that didn’t break its way. Chicago reversed the flow of its river, sending us its sludge downstream and then outpacing us with growth. Municipal leaders did some disingenuous and stupid things as they drew boundaries, creating this arcane setup where the microscopic city is left with declining population and atrocious schools. Most of what we call St. Louis is actually St. Louis County, in a bizarre twist, and has its own separate set of demographics and statistics more robust than the city’s. All of us former Kool-Aid babies understand this. Kroenke understands this. And then he and the Rams used those quirks and mistakes, twisted those facts, to pave the Rams’ path out of town. In the team’s application to move away, Kroenke and his cronies listed a smattering of stats about the city’s stagnancy—most of which took into account only the city, not the 10-times-larger metro area—to claim a place that had played home to an NFL team for 49 seasons between the Cardinals and Rams couldn’t viably support one.

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Kroenke used what he knew about St. Louis as fuel to power his private jet to Los Angeles. The city had the bones of a stadium deal in place when he packed up. It was going to give him money and a palace on the Mississippi to stay, even as it continued to pay for the dome that lured the Rams here in 1995. All of 2014 and ’15 in St. Louis were a mad scramble to give the billionaire a reason to stay in our humble Midwestern town, and looking back on it, it’s demoralizing. We’re a little bit embarrassed and a lot ashamed that we kowtowed so completely. So of course St. Louis is suing him over PSLs and breach of contract. Of course a chain of sports bars around town, Hotshots, has installed photos of Kroenke in its restrooms for patrons to pee on. Of course KMOX, the biggest local AM radio station, is playing Game 6 of the 2011 World Series on its airwaves Sunday evening. Of course former Sen. Claire McCaskill tweeted that she’s going to spend the Super Bowl watching Bob Ross paint.

We’re creative; I’ll give us that. And we’ve got a sense of humor. We’re just trying to cope, and no one quite knows how. Well, no one except my mother. She knows who—or what—she’s rooting for on Sunday. You see, when the Rams won the Super Bowl 19 years ago, the game was also in Atlanta, and there was a massive ice storm that week, complicating everything. That weather event stuck with my mother, and this year, anytime anyone has broached the subject of the game with her, she’s been unequivocal.

She’s cheering for ice, for St. Louis’s hell to freeze over.

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