Time to move on
BEREA, Ohio — Art Modell’s life and story should have appealed to everyone in a working-class town like Cleveland.
Here was a self-made man who at 14 had to cope with his father’s sudden death, who as a teenager cleaned the hulls of ships in a Brooklyn shipyard and who at 18 joined the Air Force. Modell eventually started his own television production company and used that leverage to purchase the Cleveland Browns in 1961.
Horatio Alger never knew such a tale.
But one decision changed everything for Modell, one decision that he felt he could not avoid. That decision wiped out years of a legacy in Cleveland and leaves a remaining bitterness in Modell’s former home, where memories are long and anger does not fade. That anger remains even with the news Thursday that Modell has died at age 87.
By moving the Browns in 1995, Modell became one of the city’s villains, a guy the people felt took a vital part of the city’s culture. Moving the art museum or orchestra might be comparable, but not as tough to swallow.
Modell found himself with LeBron James as the city’s two sports figures who let the city down the most, but James could be welcomed back. Modell never felt comfortable enough to return.
Why did he do it?
Modell answered that question in a back room at one of the NFL’s spring meetings in 2004. Asked why he did it when it was painfully evident he did not want to, Modell looked behind him at the questioner, looked down and then said: If I wouldn’t, I would have had to file bankruptcy.
In his mind, that would have led to losing his team and his children’s inheritance.
So he moved — a decision that should forever keep him out of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
But he had help. The city of Cleveland acted too late to keep him and sat back while Baltimore — a city that knew what it felt like to be scorned by an NFL owner — opened its wallet.
Modell always said the politicians in Cleveland covered their own hides by blaming him, and he probably went to his final moments believing Cleveland leaders were not honest with the public.
The move cost Modell anything he had built in his former town, and Cleveland fans bristled in 2001 when Modell’s Baltimore Ravens won a Super Bowl. They laughed when he thanked his friends in Cleveland after the AFC Championship Game win.
But when the NFL presented him the option of leaving the team name and colors behind, he did so. And he left Cleveland despite a record of civic and charitable involvement that would embarrass most. Yet after the move Modell, never again set foot in the city he called home for three decades — not even to attend the funeral of Browns great Lou Groza when the Groza family said he would be welcome.
Modell was a high school dropout who bought the Browns — his portion a $250,000 bank loan that would foreshadow his later problems.
He fired Paul Brown. Then he won a championship with Blanton Collier as coach.
He was a strong voice in marrying TV with the NFL, and in putting games on Monday nights.
He survived a heart attack, a double hip replacement, a staph infection and a move.
In 2004, he sold the team he loved to Steve Biscotti, retaining a 1 percent share and an office at the team’s facility. With the Ravens, he remains a beloved figure — as Ozzie Newsome pointed out in a statement that said the opportunities Modell gave Newsome were “historic.” With Browns players, the anger has dissipated; Jim Brown posted on Twitter that Modell belongs in Canton.
Modell was never completely beloved in Cleveland. His firing of Paul Brown left many angry, and his feud with Jim Brown that led to the running back’s premature retirement seemed unnecessary. Too, Modell was always seen as the meddling owner, a guy who was too cheap and couldn’t make it work.
In the end, he overspent and got himself into so much debt that he had to move.
At one NFL owners meetings in March of 1995, Modell, Newsome and Kevin Byrne — a native Clevelander who worked for Modell in Cleveland and Baltimore — huddled in serious discussions while the media buzzed that the Browns had signed Andre Rison.
For mysterious reasons, the Browns did not announce the signing that day even though it was well known.
The reason? Modell had to go to various banks to borrow the money to pay the bonus to sign Rison. Free agency demanded cash; the NFL had grown into a billionaire’s league. Both were beyond Modell’s means.
In the end, crushing debt and a decrepit stadium prompted Modell to move. In Baltimore, that debt prompted the NFL to force him to sell the team.
Modell ripped out Cleveland’s heart when he moved the team, But as with all stories, there are many tentacles.
Some of the same people in Cleveland who revile Modell and criticized him for spending irresponsibly now criticize the Dolan family for not spending enough on the Indians.
While Modell is reviled, a statue of Al Lerner stands outside the team facility in Berea: Lerner brought the Browns back in 1999, but he also helped the Browns move in 1995 — actions Lerner always said were merely to help a friend who asked for help.
Is it worse that Modell moved the team or that tax money went to a football palace that is used 10 times per year rather than to Cleveland schools?
Modell made a business decision that was immensely unpopular There’s no doubt that move remains a gigantic black mark in Cleveland sports history.
But the Browns have had 13 years since to get it right, and they’ve failed. Miserably. Modell — and the city leaders — can be held accountable for the first couple years because the move left the Browns and Cleveland with expansion, but since 2001 it’s been pretty much the Browns themselves who have turned into stumblebums.
Hate Modell’s decision. Frame the Sports Illustrated cover that shows him punching Browns fans in the gut.
But at this point his family deserves to mourn a loss without bile and venom.
Let him rest in peace.