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Gridiron Gentlemen

Win or lose, the Jets and Giants are No. 1 when it comes to their civilized owners.

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No matter how flagrantly terrible the referee’s mistake, no matter how wildly dramatic the last-second finish, here is one thing you did not see during the Giants’ or Jets’ playoff games last weekend: an owner of either of New York’s football teams raging in vein-popping fury or high-fiving in vicarious victory celebration. In fact, chances are extremely good that you didn’t see Wellington Mara and Bob Tisch of the Giants or Woody Johnson of the Jets at all.

This is a rare and wonderful thing, especially in the puffed-out-chest big-time-sports-own- ership era that is defined locally by George Steinbrenner and nationally by Mark Cuban, the Dallas Mavericks’ courtside-tantrum menace. It’s tempting to credit their low profile to the genius of the NFL’s economic socialism, where virtually equal payrolls produce on-field competitive mediocrity -- oops, parity. But the league’s business rules haven’t managed to constrain, say, the childishness of Redskins owner Daniel Snyder.

And it isn’t as if Mara, Tisch, and Johnson are recluses or bores. Mara is one of the city’s colorful, dwindling Irish-American aristocracy. He inherited the Giants from his father, who in 1925 paid for his founding stake in the NFL partly through (legal) bookmaking profits. Tisch, 76, is a real-estate and tobacco billionaire who is campaigning to rebuild public-school athletic fields. The 55-year-old Johnson, who spent $635 million of his family’s Band-Aid fortune to buy the Jets in 2000, is a longtime George W. Bush fund-raiser and one of the city’s most eligible bachelors after divorcing his socialite wife, Sale.

None of the three lack ego or hunger. Yet as badly as they all want to win, the owners share a sense of proportion -- partly because each gained their fortunes a long time ago, partly because they have a worldview that’s larger than SportsCenter. Some of their anonymity may be shed in the near future, however. Mara is 86 years old, and his passing might provoke a replay of the 1991 inheritance squabble that saw his late brother Jack’s share sold to Tisch. And Johnson strides through Giants Stadium with his guest George Pataki -- whose support for building a New York Jets stadium could prove helpful.

By the time you read this, it will be clear if there’s still any possibility of the first Subway Super Bowl (played in San Diego, by two New Jersey–based clubs). Regardless, Jets and Giants fans are already winners, because the owners of their teams will always leave the mouthing-off to Jeremy Shockey.


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