Art Modell's move from Cleveland never can be forgiven
Art Modell was one of the most important yet polarizing figures in NFL history, a man who helped set the stage for pro football's enormous popularity with his forward-thinking ideas on growing the sport through television. But he also was a man who failed to keep his own financial house in order in Cleveland. He reneged on his long-held promise never to move the city's beloved Browns, engaging in secret negotiations during the 1995 season and indeed moving the team to Baltimore, a city that had its own franchise swiped away 11 years earlier.
Modell died early Thursday at the age of 87, leaving behind a mixed legacy in two cities that alternately loved and loathed him. Fans in Baltimore treated him as a conquering hero when he gave them an NFL team; fans in Cleveland reviled him like no one else -- not even LeBron James, who left Cleveland for Miami -- and continue to look upon his tenure with disgust.
Modell himself always was sensitive to the vitriol, even though he understood its roots. He was a man who wanted so much to be liked, and he hoped that by at least leaving the Browns' name, colors and team records in Cleveland, he might be viewed just a little more kindly by the city, especially after the NFL approved an expansion franchise for Cleveland in time for the 1999 season.
Modell also was a generous civic leader, involved in many charitable causes over the years.
The Browns' organization, sensitive to the venomous feelings toward Modell, agonized on Thursday about whether to even acknowledge his death before Sunday's home game against the Eagles. The NFL had asked all teams to pay tribute to Modell, and the Browns had planned to go along until Modell's family requested that no mention of him be made at the game.
"It was tragic how he broke the heart of Cleveland fans," Browns Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown told the Cleveland Plain-Dealer. "But that's the reality and nothing can be done about it."
The years barely tempered the emotions of Browns fans. In fact, Modell remained such a hated figure in Cleveland that he never once returned to the city, not even for the funeral of his dear friend, Browns Hall of Fame kicker Lou "The Toe" Groza, who died in 2000.
Even leaving the team's colors behind rang hollow for many Browns fans. After all, it was Modell who fired the man the team was created by and named after. Modell got rid of Hall of Fame coach Paul Brown after the 1962 season. The Browns won the NFL championship in 1964 under Brown's replacement, Blanton Collier, but haven't won a championship since.
Modell also hired another Hall of Fame-caliber coach -- a fellow by the name of Bill Belichick.
Modell said he was forced to relocate the team because the politicians in Cleveland and Ohio failed to give him suitable stadium conditions, especially after the Indians were able to build Jacobs Field in 1994. Modell said he was deeply in debt his last two seasons in Cleveland, losing $21 million, and that Baltimore offered a financial way out of his problems. But just after he announced he was leaving for Baltimore, voters approved a measure that would provide substantial revenues to renovate Cleveland Stadium.
NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who also received intense criticism for failing to stop Modell from leaving, eventually brokered a deal to have a team return to Cleveland as an expansion franchise. The Browns resumed play there in 1999, although they have had just one winning season since then.
There are many figures around the league who will vouch for Modell as worthy of Pro Football Hall of Fame induction, based on his many contributions to the league's financial success through his ideas about television's role in expanding the league's popularity.
"He was a great visionary for the game of football. He should be in the Hall of Fame," Jim Brown said.
Modell's supporters will point to his successful run in Baltimore, which included a Super Bowl championship after the 2000 season. And he helped break down racial barriers by appointing Browns Hall of Fame tight end Ozzie Newsome as the NFL's first African-American general manager in 2002.
Modell eventually sold all but 1 percent of his stake in the Ravens to current owner Steve Bisciotti, but Bisciotti keeps a large portrait of Modell in the spacious foyer of the team's training facilities in suburban Baltimore.
Yet despite those accomplishments, it is impossible to ignore the legacy he left behind in Cleveland, which is only an hour's drive from the Canton-based Hall of Fame. Although Modell's ideas may have been good for the game overall, his decision to rip the franchise out by the roots from tradition-rich Cleveland, where fans faithfully have supported their teams in good times and bad, simply cannot be overlooked.
As a Hall of Fame voter who takes this responsibility with all the seriousness it deserves, I simply cannot reconcile that contradiction. For all the worthy contributions that Modell has made to the game, it still comes back to those people in Cleveland who had their hearts broken when their beloved Brownies were taken away.
May Modell rest in peace.
Just not in Canton.