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The sad case of the Florida Classic

Blame for losing the Florida Classic, assuming it is lost for good, rests in Tallahassee as well as Tampa. Local political and business officials have never done as much as they should to protect this community asset, but Florida A&M University President Frederick Humphries _ who has never liked the Tampa site as much as his counterparts at Bethune-Cookman College do _ helped to poison the atmosphere by making monetary demands that had the whiff of extortion.

As a result, an event that brings millions of dollars and incalculable good will to Tampa apparently is leaving town in a dispute over a few thousand dollars. Those on both sides of this impasse should examine the reasons for their failure.

Things have never been quite the same since Tampa hoteliers and merchants alienated Classic fans in the early 1990s through policies that smacked of racial bias. In 1990, some hotels were criticized for forcing African-American Classic fans to post cash deposits and agree to minimum stays. Most of the hotels did not adopt similar policies for the predominantly white fans attending what is now the Outback Bowl. In 1994, the mall across from Tampa Stadium closed early, denying fans their traditional post-game stroll through Tampa Bay Center. The classic is part rivalry, part reunion, for tens of thousands of black football fans, and the message they received was clear: We want your money but not your traffic.

The college presidents deserve their share of blame, too. Humphries called the 1994 mall closing a "huge problem" that threatened the game's future in Tampa _ even though the schools collected $35,000 from the mall for agreeing to delay the kickoff time. Humphries then suggested Tampa Bay Center pay $100,000 to the schools to atone for the affront. B-CC President Oswald Bronson, meanwhile, wanted a "genuine hearing of the pain the presidents suffered." By putting such a crass price tag on racial discrimination, the presidents masqueraded as victims while bullying like big shots.

Tampa, however, bears the ultimate responsibility for losing the game. Each school wanted a guarantee of $400,000 apiece, about $100,000 more than their current take. Hard-working supporters understand that the Classic has brought Tampa more than a weekend spending binge. The $12-million the event brings into the local economy pales in comparison to the value of showcasing the entire Bay area as a place to raise a family, or start a job. Once again, Tampa has failed to make the relatively small gesture that could produce big benefits for everyone involved.

Jacksonville, which was supposed to be the eager suitor that would steal the Classic from Tampa, also has balked at the presidents' demands, so the game currently is without a home. Until the Classic is officially lost, Tampa leaders should continue to explore every reasonable option for keeping the event where it belongs.