Cumberland Times-News

September 7, 2012

Cleveland still blames Modell, but it shouldn’t

Mike Burke
Cumberland Times-News

— Baltimore and Cleveland are so similar to one another and, for various reasons — in civics, culture, demographics and sports — are often linked to one another. Certainly Art Modell, who died Thursday morning at the age of 87, is a major reason why.

On Nov. 6, 1995, he announced he would do the unthinkable and move his Cleveland Browns to Baltimore, which had been without an NFL team for 12 seasons, and the Maryland city rejoiced — to a degree, because to this day nobody better understands how Cleveland still feels about losing its beloved original Browns than does Baltimore, which had to live through the Colts packing up and moving to Indianapolis in March of 1984.

Sure, there is another version of the Cleveland Browns (sans Ozzie Newsome and Ray Lewis) playing their games in a new state-of-the art stadium, and that’s because Modell left the Browns colors and history in Cleveland — a fate not accorded to Baltimore when the Colts left — and because, when Cleveland attempted to block the move in court, it ended up settling for $12 million from Modell and the promise from the league of a new team that would be the Browns and adopt its records and history.

The NFL even subsidized the construction of the city's new stadium on a loan it collected from the new Browns franchise, prompting Modell to say, “If I had gotten half of that, I would still be in Cleveland.”

(By the way, the original owner of the new Browns was Modell’s friend Al Lerner, upon whose airplane Modell signed the deal to move the team from Cleveland to Baltimore.)

Still, Modell, a man who should be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame for his pioneering efforts that made the NFL the most powerful sports entity in the history of the world, is not a Hall of Famer. In fact, even on the day of his death, he is vilified in Cleveland just as the late Baltimore Colts owner Robert Irsay, who should not be a Hall of Famer, still is in Baltimore.

Unlike Irsay, though, the last thing Modell wanted to do was move his franchise out of Cleveland, a city he had grown to love and help in countless ways. His philanthropy in Cleveland alone is legendary, just as it is now in Baltimore. Among many other things, he raised millions for the Cleveland Clinic and helped rescue the struggling landmark Hotel Cleveland. But Modell was in debt in large part because — irony of ironies — he took over as landlord of Municipal Stadium, better known to the world as The Mistake By The Lake, to help prevent the baseball Cleveland Indians from leaving town.

In the meantime, a decade after putting up $65 million for the relocation and construction of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Cleveland taxpayers paid to build the Great Lakes Science Center and new downtown sports palaces for the Indians and the NBA Cavaliers, but not one for one of the most famous sports franchises in the world and, certainly, the most beloved one in Cleveland, the NFL Browns.

The truth of the matter is Cleveland turned its back on Modell and left him no choice but to leave, just as the Irsay family will say of Baltimore and the state of Maryland. The Indians, Modell’s biggest tenant of Municipal Stadium, now had its own facility, as did the Cavaliers, and Modell was left with a crumbling non-revenue producing venue and the prospect of going broke.

He refused to sell the team to Lerner, he said, wishing instead to leave it to his family, which reaped the benefits of that ownership when the Ravens were sold to Steven Bisciotti. How can you blame a man for that? How can you blame him for wanting to keep what he built for the sake of his family? How can you not blame the civic leaders of Cleveland for turning their backs on a person who did all he could do for the betterment and prosperity of their city?

Enter the weasel NFL commissioner at the time, Paul Tagliabue, former Washington Redskins season-ticket holder, who was so far in with then-Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke, he saw to Jacksonville receiving an NFL expansion team when Baltimore’s bid was clearly the best on the table. Thus, after he snidely remarked that Baltimore should use the expansion money it raised to “build another museum,” the gloves came off, and Baltimore and the state of Maryland, which had played by all of the NFL’s rules in pursuing an expansion team, only to be dirtied upon by the NFL, actively pursued, then landed the original Browns.

On the emotional surface, it is understandable why Cleveland fans so loathe the late Art Modell, and why the Cleveland writer who has a vote for the Pro Football Hall of Fame has successfully kept Modell out of the Hall of Fame. But to truly understand why Ozzie Newsome, Ray Lewis and the rest of the Baltimore Ravens are not the Cleveland Browns, the people of Cleveland and Ohio need look no further than their own municipal leaders from the time, and to the late Jack Kent Cooke’s boy, Paul Tagliabue.

Mike Burke is sports editor of the Cumberland Times-News. Write to him at mburke@times-news.com