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Commentary: Care about football in a post-NFL St. Louis?

Decoraters wait for the St. Louis Rams Super Bowl banner to lower from the rafters of the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis on January 14, 2016. Signage is being removed from the former home of the St. Louis Rams after owner Stan Kroenke announced the team will return to Los Angeles for the 2016 season and will eventually play in a new stadium. Photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI

Decoraters wait for the St. Louis Rams Super Bowl banner to lower from the rafters of the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis on January 14, 2016. Signage is being removed from the former home of the St. Louis Rams after owner Stan Kroenke announced the team will return to Los Angeles for the 2016 season and will eventually play in a new stadium. Photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI

ST. LOUIS COUNTY, MO (KTVI)- We’ve now reached the official end of the last season that included the St. Louis Rams in the NFL.  Many of you have already decided that you want no part of the NFL, don’t want it to return, and won’t pay any future attention to it it.  Even though we all could see the end coming, it was still a punch to the collective gut. It still left me smarting as I watched the Super Bowl broadcast Sunday pay tribute to Mike Jones’ title-saving tackle mixed with a city skyline the league was all too willing to throw away.

To be clear here, I was not a die-hard Rams fan. I’m a sports fan. There’s no question I followed the team avidly and cared about what happened with the Rams but this is the first time in my sporting life that I just felt dirty caring about a brand or a league that seems to have done everything to shove aside fans. We’ve seen it happen to other cities, from Seattle to Montreal, among others, and in the sport closest to my heart (Baseball). But when it happens to you or your city, it’s personal.

Soon after the Rams move was announced at least one team was already testing the waters to see if fans here wanted to hook up with them.

The Colts? THE COLTS! The same team that moved out of Baltimore in the middle of the night is asking fans here to get hitched.

Moving on might be a little easier if the league had taken a public ballot, telling the world which two franchises voted against the Ram plan. It wouldn’t immediately make me fall in love with one of those teams, but it would remove any doubt about the team I grew up with, the Buffalo Bills.  The Bills of the 1980s were awful. The stats were not as bad as the post-Greatest Show on Turf Rams, but in the neighborhood. Thanks to the old blackout rules, you’d often have to hear them snatch defeat from the jaws of victory on the radio instead of watching it on TV. They were so bad that Jim Kelly refused to sign with them as a first round pick in 1983.

Amid all this “Will the Rams stay or will they go” nonsense, I thought about my childhood friend Kris Rzepkowski, who gave me the business when my Bills allegiance wasn’t quite up to snuff. In 1985, I liked the Bears. In 1987, I liked the Giants. Yes, both teams went to and won the Super Bowl in those years. It was a whole lot easier to be a fan of those teams than the Bills. But Kris was there through thick and thin.

In the late 80s it was easier to get on the Bills train and stay there. A three way trade with the Rams and Colts brought Cornelius Bennett to Western New York (Dickerson to the Colts), Marv Levy was hired as head coach, the USFL folded and Kelly arrived, and Thurman Thomas was drafted with a huge chip on his shoulder and something to prove.  And they always had an owner in Ralph Wilson, who cared about the team and knew what that team meant to the region. After my friend’s early admonition, rest assured I was crushed  when the Bills reached and lost four straight Super Bowls.

But Ralph Wilson wasn’t going to live forever, and as he advanced in age, questions arose about the long term future in Western New York. The team was linked to Toronto and Los Angeles as a relocation target. Thankfully, a new lease includes heavy penalties for moving, and the sale of the team after Wilson’s 2014 to Terry and Kim Pegula, who own the NHL’s Sabres, offers some stability and peace of mind. This past year, I marveled at how Kim Pegula showed how “in” they were with being the owner of the BUFFALO BILLS, and wished Stan Kroenke cared about St. Louis the same way.

But when that 30-2 vote came out, I had no way of knowing if the owners of the team I’d grown up with had gone along with this L.A. Story or not. It’s my job as a journalist to always have a professional skepticism. And it’s been easy to feed that when covering the Rams, and even more so trying to see the motives of league executives. But now, I was really left with little choice but to lump the Pegulas in with the likes of Jerry Jones, Roger Goodell and Eric Grubman.

So where do I go from here?

No, I have not and won’t be burning any Rams gear. We still have my late mother-in-law’s PSL holder hat and a Rams Christmas ornament. But I don’t know that I’ll ever get all warm and fuzzy about an NFL team ever again.  The truth is, the NFL started doing this to itself for me long before Stan Kroenke decided to head west. The explosion of fantasy sports and the sheer volume of NFL coverage out there is to blame for that, at least to me, and I suspect others.

Outside of our own coverage here at FOX2, it’s been years since I tuned in regularly for network pregame shows, or the huge chunks of ESPN’s schedule now occupied by football, not to mention the league’s own network. What Bill Belichick, Marshawn Lynch will or won’t say, when everyone knows they won’t say anything–the sad reality show that is Johnny Manziel–do I really care about any of that? The answer is no.

If you’re a fantasy sports player, then you’ve probably had to root for a player to do well against “your team”. And if your team isn’t very good, like the Rams, that’s probably  happened a lot.  It sounds like a great way for the league and those teams to cash on deals with FanDuel and DraftKings but it doesn’t lead to enhanced loyalty of a particular franchise.  I did watch most of the game Sunday night, but I was more interested in how Mizzou standouts like Kony Ealy and Shane Ray fared than truly caring about the outcome. And I never would have missed any of the Super Bowl in past years to do laundry. I did this time.

I won’t claim to quit the NFL cold turkey, but moving forward it will now be easier for me to find reasons not to watch. For now, seeing the likes of Orlando Pace and eventually Kurt Warner inducted into the Hall of Fame will still bring both a sense of appreciation of what this city had, but also the jolt of loss of what was taken.