Thinking about Sports: Kevin and Me

by Alex Fredman | 4/21/20 2:00am

thinkingsports
by Clara Pakman / The Dartmouth Staff

This is a story about a man who is one of the most important Dartmouth alumni you’ve probably never heard of.

His name is Kevin Demoff, and for the last few years, the mere mention of his name would make me furious as I recalled the key role he played in a drama that has changed the course of sports history.

But the more I’ve learned about him, the more I wonder whether the time has come for me to forgive him for what he did.

It started with my realization that, as it turns out, Mr. Demoff and I have a number of things in common.

Like me, Demoff was a history major at Dartmouth. Like me, Demoff is Jewish — or, we both have at least one Jewish parent. Like me, Demoff served as sports editor of this newspaper. And like me, Demoff lived for a number of years in my hometown of St. Louis.

Our similarities, I would surmise, end there. I, for example, still proudly call St. Louis my home, while Demoff has moved far away from the Gateway City. And while I’ve lived in St. Louis my whole life, I don’t stand out amid the roughly 3 million people who call the St. Louis region home.

Kevin Demoff, on the other hand, is a notorious figure in St. Louis. Reviled. Hated, in fact, may not be too strong of a word.

How can a man with enough good sense to not only graduate from Dartmouth in 1999 but return to Hanover to get his MBA from the Tuck School of Business earn such animosity from a legion of normally nice Midwesterners?

A native of Los Angeles, Demoff is the chief operating officer of the Los Angeles Rams, formerly the St. Louis Rams, formerly the Los Angeles Rams, formerly the Cleveland Rams. Yes, relocation has been an integral storyline in the history of the National Football League franchise, and when the Rams went back to L.A. in 2016, Demoff was the point man in orchestrating the move and convincing the NFL owners to approve it. 

One might argue that Demoff was just doing what he was told. The true villain of the Rams’ move away from St. Louis is Demoff’s boss, team owner Stan Kroenke. To use an analogy, if St. Louisans see Demoff as Darth Vader, then Kroenke is the Emperor.

Stan Kroenke is one of the richest men in the world, having married the daughter of Walmart co-founder James Walton and built his own fortune in real estate. He helped finance the Rams’ move to St. Louis in the 1990s by buying a minority stake in the team. In 2010, when the majority owners put the rest of the team up for sale, Kroenke announced at the last second that he was exercising his contractual right of first refusal to buy the team, even though someone else had already entered into a purchase agreement with the sellers.

People at the time thought that was pretty shady, but that was before they got to know Stan. Well, really, no one got to know Kroenke, who was famously reclusive, and whose seeming disinterest in St. Louis and its people was only partially assuaged by a rare 2010 interview in which he declared, “I’m going to attempt to do everything that I can to keep the Rams in St. Louis.”

The full story of the Rams’ relocation is too long and convoluted to recount in this column. Suffice it to say that it was an ugly breakup — and one that will undoubtedly result in immense profits for both Kroenke and the NFL. I think St. Louisans would not have been so angry at Demoff’s role in that breakup, however, had he not said publicly on several occasions that the Rams were absolutely not going to leave St. Louis.

In 2012, Demoff said that “Our goal is to build a winning organization on and off the field in St. Louis, and that continues to be the goal for the next year, three years, 10 years, 20 years.” Two years later, he told fans that there was a “one-in-a-million chance” the Rams would leave St. Louis.

These statements, among others, are cited as evidence in a lawsuit first filed in 2017 by the city and county of St. Louis against Kroenke, the Rams and the NFL (with each team and owner individually listed as defendants). Counts in the suit include breach of contract, unjust enrichment and fraud.

In recent months, the judge in the case has made a number of favorable rulings for the plaintiffs, and it is looking increasingly possible that Demoff, Kroenke and possibly NFL commissioner Roger Goodell might one day have to take the stand as witnesses in the case. Just yesterday, in fact, the U.S. Supreme Court denied an appeal by Kroenke to settle the lawsuit in arbitration, which makes it even more likely that Kroenke and the NFL may have to shell out big money to St. Louis.

Demoff didn’t exactly endear himself to St. Louisans on his way out the door. He gave a speech in which he implied that the Rams’ dismal performance in previous years may have been a good thing, and he also told a group of California businessmen that he and his staff in St. Louis “couldn’t eat the food delivered to their offices.”

Insulting St. Louis food was a big mistake. St. Louisans are very proud of our local cuisine. I mean, have you tried toasted ravioli and gooey butter cake?

Beyond the lawsuit, St. Louis has made its displeasure for Demoff known. When a local TV station aired a press conference Demoff gave in 2017, the banner at the bottom of the screen read, “Kevin Demoff — Rams Chief Operating Officer/Professional Liar.” Most viewers of the program probably concurred.

But does Demoff really deserve that title?

For a while, I thought so. I can imagine Demoff returning to Hanover to give a talk to Tuck students. It would be titled, “Profit Maximization in Professional Sports: How to Achieve Market Growth through Location Re-Adjustment and Public Disinformation” — or something to that effect. And there I would be, sitting in the front row, wearing St. Louis sports gear and waiting for the Q&A to air my grievances.

Yet the more I think about it, Demoff probably wouldn’t deserve that. I went back and read some of his work for this newspaper, and he was a really good writer. And after all, he was just doing his job for the Rams. Demoff is a guy who is good at what he does.

Stan Kroenke moved the Rams to L.A. to make more money, plain and simple. But I wonder if Demoff can be blamed for just wanting to bring his team back to his hometown.

And heck, with all that we have in common, maybe one day, I’ll move the Rams back to St. Louis.