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Art Modell, Dead at 87

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Only twice in my life have I seen rooms filled with otherwise unaffiliated grown men with tears streaming down their face.

The first was January 17, 1988; a day known in Cleveland by only two words: “The Fumble.”  One year prior, John Elway led the Denver Broncos on “The Drive”; a 98 yard, 5 minute attack that forced overtime and eventually ended in an AFC Championship Game victory against the Cleveland Browns.  “The Drive” was a crushing loss for the Browns, but nothing compared to heartbreak that accompanied “The Fumble.”  On January 17, 1988, The Browns again met the Broncos in the AFC Championship game. Late in the 4th quarter, the Browns trailed 38-31 and had driven down to inside the 5-yard line. They were primed to punch it in and score the game-tying touchdown. However, the pending bliss turned into heartbreak when Earnest Byner was stripped by Jeremiah Castile as he headed into the end zone. The Broncos took an intentional safety, won the game 38-33 and punched their ticket back to the Super Bowl.  Being 5-years old at the time I remember the game, but the real memory that was burned in my mind from that day were the looks of sheer agony and despair on the faces of Clevelanders. I had never seen anything like it. Moments of unmistakable anger were quickly replaced by feelings that can only be known by years and years of disappointment. Tears were soaking the floors of barrooms all across the city and I remember hearing someone say: “This is the worst feeling I’ve ever felt and there’s no way anything can be worse than this.”

Flash-forward to November 6, 1995. Cleveland, a city still reeling from the Indians World Series loss 9 days prior, was greeted with the most crushing blow that a sports fan can imagine. Art Modell, an NFL pioneer, whose charitable works within the city rival those of any humanitarian, not only undid 30 years of goodwill, but when he agreed to move the Browns franchise to Baltimore, he ascended to the throne as the most hated person in Cleveland history. This isn’t a discussion of whether or not Art Modell was one of the key people who helped create the NFL that you know today (he was). Nor is it a discussion of whether or not he belongs in the Hall of Fame (in my opinion, he does not). This is a piece that helps to convey the feelings of a city and of a nation of Cleveland Browns fans.

I’ve heard people from other cities ask why it still matters, “The Browns have a team” and advise that the city should “get over it.” These are people who don’t think of the Browns when asked to name a great NFL franchise; two decades of losing tends to have that effect. However, what these people and most people who aren’t from Cleveland don’t know, nor understand just how wide of a fanbase the Browns possess. The Browns Backers Worldwide (BBW) is the largest sports-fan organization in the United States. There are Browns Backers clubs in nearly every city across the nation and in countries from Canada to Australia. They also don’t understand that the Browns are the NFL. The Browns went to 7 straight Championship games in the 1950s and 4 out of 6 in the 1960s. When the Browns played on television, the broadcast started with the tagline: “The Greatest Show in Football.” It’s not a stretch in any way shape or form to say that the Browns move would be like moving the Bears out of Chicago or the Packers out of Green Bay. In order to fully comprehend why the city hasn’t, and never will, “get over it”, you must understand that Ohio is football. Out of the first 5 NFL Championship games, 4 were won by teams from Akron, Canton, or Cleveland. So for Cleveland to not have a team for even a day, let alone 4 years, is not only a travesty, it’s criminal.

Not only is it criminal, it’s not something that said Browns fan could’ve fathomed when uttering: “This is the worst feeling I’ve ever felt and there’s no way anything can be worse than this.” While there was crying and sadness when the Browns lost in 1987 and 1988, the tears that flowed in November of 1995 could’ve flooded the Cuyahoga River. Being only 13 at the time, aside from hearing stories, I wasn’t privy to the golden age of Cleveland Browns football and didn’t truly understand how colossal the situation was. To put it into perspective, take the feelings that Clevelanders felt (and the nation felt for Clevelanders) when LeBron James turned his back on the city and left for Miami… now multiply those feelings by a thousand. That may come relatively close to how generations of Clevelanders felt on that winter morning in 1995. Think I’m exaggerating? Come to Cleveland and ask anyone over the age of 50 how they feel about Art Modell. Not only did I do that, I asked them in the holiest of places, church. The responses were all passionate and only varied in their level of negativity and sadness; from very to unbelievably. While I won’t post what they were, I will post what I saw in the people’s eyes simply upon muttering the name Art Modell. It’s hard to describe in words, but to me, the initial shock of the name being brought up was if they had just seen a ghost… but that quickly faded to a look I would imagine accompanies your spouse leaving you, your dog dying, and your house burning down… all in the same day. Grown men, grandparents, lips quivering, welling up with tears, 5, 10, 15 years after the fact; all ending the conversation with the same thing: “It will never be the same.” The saddest part is that they’re right.

While there was plenty of blame to go around for how the situation came to be including with then-mayor Michael White who thought the threat to move was a bluff. The lion’s share of the blame sits and will forever sit upon the shoulders of Arthur B. Modell. He was grasping for straws, a debt-ridden millionaire in a billionaires boy’s club. He had pipe dreams of passing the team along to his sons; all while knowing that reality meant no chance of that happening (soon after the move he began selling off pieces to the team to now owner Steve Bisciotti). Being on the verge of bankruptcy, Modell famously claimed that he “had no choice.” Make no mistake, he had a choice, but instead of selling the team, he wanted to stick it to Cleveland leadership who had just recently built a new stadium for the Indians and relocated the Cavs downtown from a nearby suburb. It’s been said that upon taking a tour of the new then-Jacobs Field, he became so irate that he stormed out of the stadium and immediately began the now infamous “secret talks” with Baltimore.

Modell was resolute… miscalculating, spiteful, and allowing his anger at the city to punish one of, if not the strongest, fanbases in the NFL, but he was resolute. He was moving the Browns come hell or high water. Judges tried to block the move to no avail. Even the NFL attempted to step in and lobby Congress for an antitrust exemption (similar to Major League Baseball) that would give them the power to control franchise movement. Part of their case was based on the fact that the Browns sold out nearly every game and voters had just approved $175M in stadium renovations.  Their efforts were also thwarted, and while the franchise was forced to leave behind the team name, colors, and history, moving trucks came soon after and hauled just about everything else, including the anger of millions of Browns fans to Baltimore; and Art Modell has not set foot in Ohio since.

This isn’t meant to be a piece piling on the newly deceased Art Modell. My condolences go out to his family and those that he has helped in his 87 years; I sincerely hope that he is resting in peace. By many accounts he was a generous and caring man, a good man; but even good men make awful decisions from time to time. I do truly believe that Art Modell knew in his heart what he was doing was wrong, but he felt cornered, he felt desperate, and instead of rationally presenting his case to the fans and city leaders for a new stadium, he instead acted as if his hand was forced without even a pseudo-mea culpa. I don’t think that what he did really hit him until he was on the dais in Baltimore announcing the move. The press conference was wrapping up; Modell had spoken and so had Maryland governor Parris Glendening. At the end of the media circus in which a few members of the Cleveland sports scene were present, one asked Art what the team would be called. The words from some of those present stated that upon hearing the question Art froze. He looked part panicked, part dismayed, and part like a teenager who had just been caught drinking. Before he could approach the microphone to give a response, Glendenning stepped up, gave a glib politician smile and smugly responded… “The Baltimore Browns.”

Those three words meant that the game was officially over. While Cleveland eventually retained the name, that singular three word utterance was the knockout blow to an already punch-drunk city. The last flailing haymaker from a wobbly man, whose poor business decisions and overwhelming debt finally caught up with him, landed squarely on the jaw of one of the game’s most proud fanbases. To the many who knew him, Modell was known as an extremely loyal man, but when push came to shove, it was loyalty that took a backseat to revenge and his own selfish desires.


2 Responses to “Art Modell, Dead at 87”

  1. Art Modell the man – Did many good things. In the eyes of “his adopted city” he washed them away with one evil deed. He had 15 years after he moved the team to issue an apology. After he won the Superbowl he could have been the bigger man and made a statement of regret for the pain he caused the people of Cleveland. On his death bed he could have stated something to the fact that he regrets the way he went about the things. In the end due to poor business decisions he still had to lose his team. In olden days criminals were either punished by death, or ostracized out into the world. Many times being ostracized was considered far worse, because human beings as social creatures were seperated from their “pack”. I find it fitting the Art felt he could never return to Cleveland. I also find it fitting that he was never able to see himself get inducted into the Hall of Fame. According to Dante the 9th Circle of Hell is reserved for traitors. When I envision that 9th circle I see statues of Judas, Brutus, and Art Modell.

    Posted by JJ | September 7, 2012, 8:58 am
  2. “Modell was known as an extremely loyal man, but when push came to shove, it was loyalty that took a backseat to revenge and his own selfish desires.”

    But the True Measure of a Man isn’t what he does when times are good, when he’s on top….it’s what he does when his back is against the wall, when push comes to shove, and we saw what the True Measure of what Modell was about.

    Posted by Percy Miller | September 7, 2012, 12:26 pm

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