September 6, 2012
Depending on your geographic location and potential affinity for a NFL franchise, Art Modell was either a visionary that helped sculpt the National Football League into what it is today or a heartless, money grubbing son of a gun that uprooted a long standing franchise seemingly on a whim, devastating an entire fan base. Inevitably, both sides would be correct in their point of view and more than likely unable to sway members of the other camp regardless of how persuasive the argument may seem.
As for Modell himself, he is no longer able to offer an opinion, a thought process or a defense of his actions to or for either side. The Hall of Fame owner died Thursday morning at the age of 87 of natural causes, with his sons at his side.
Modell was involved as an owner in the National Football League for over four decades but despite all his good deeds, he is remembered for one unpopular decision. That decision and the subsequent fallout may be the very reason why he has not been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame despite all his contributions to professional football.
He helped the NFL negotiate television contracts that were financially lucrative, served as president of the league from 1967 to 1969 and was the chair for the league’s first collective bargaining sessions with the players back in 1968. More importantly for football fans, if it wasn’t for Modell, there would be no “Monday Night Football”; he was the individual responsible for driving talks between the league and ABC to get the league in prime time. In addition, Modell was part of the committee that helped merge the upstart American Football League with the more established NFL.
Even with all those good deeds on his ledger, it was a decision that he made that became public on November 6, 1995 that washed away all the positives Modell had accomplished in his tenure. That day, it was announced that Modell, who had lost a substantial stream of revenue when the Cleveland Indians moved from Cleveland Stadium to Jacobs Field, had decided to move the team to Baltimore in time for the 1996 season. To say that the move triggered an onslaught of bitterness, hurt feelings and vitriol would be like saying the Steel Curtain was a good defense or that the 1972 Dolphins were a decent football team: a vast understatement.
The Browns were coming off a playoff season in 1994, going 11-5 under coach Bill Belichick and were predicted by some to be the AFC’s representative in Super Bowl XXX. The team started off 3-1 in 1995 before dropping three straight games. They were 4-5 at the time of Modell’s announcement and wilted down the stretch, dropping six of their final seven games to finish 5-11. Two of those 11 defeats came at the hands of the Jacksonville Jaguars, an expansion team in its first year of existence. Advertisers bailed out on the franchise when the announcement was made; the team and its venue were left without sponsors down the stretch.
For a franchise that has been haunted by “The Drive” and “The Fumble,” the Cleveland fans now had a third chapter to complete their trilogy of misery. Browns fans called the decision and subsequent departure of the franchise simply “The Move.” When the 1996 season started, there was no NFL franchise in Cleveland for the first time since the 1949 season (the Browns were AAFC powerhouses from 1946 to 1949, while the Rams left Cleveland for Los Angeles after the 1945 campaign.) That was not the end of the conversation by any means, as the litigation between the city of Cleveland, Modell and the league continued on.
In February 1996, an agreement was struck between the parties. Modell would be allowed to move the Browns as planned to Baltimore, which he believed was a first class city with the funds available to build a state of the art venue for his football team. However, the franchise he took with him would and would not be the Browns. Sound confusing? Of course it does, but try to follow the legal version of connect the dots.
The name, colors, awards, archives, records and history of the franchise would remain in Cleveland and the Browns would be deactivated for three years. That meant that the league promised the city a franchise in time for the 1999 season, either via another team packing their bags and relocating or by granting an expansion franchise. The league also promised that the reactivated Browns would play in the same division as the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cincinnati Bengals, two of their geographical rivals.
In exchange, Modell was granted the contracts of the players and personnel that were under contract with the team. The team, which was named the Ravens via a fan poll, took Cleveland’s spot in the AFC Central division. Such a transaction was virtually unprecedented in league history: the only other time a team suspended operations without merging with another or outright folding was the Cleveland Rams, who did so in 1943 during the height of World War II. That franchise came back in 1944 and subsequently bolted for Los Angeles in 1946.
All the wording of the agreement did was create chaos around the league. Several teams threatened their present locales that they would move to Cleveland and become the new Browns should they not be afforded a new stadium, new lease or whatever concessions they were seeking. The league closed that window of opportunity in 1998 when it was announced that the Browns would be reactivated as an expansion team, thus taking away the ability of another franchise stepping in. Oddly enough, Modell’s move to Baltimore marked the first move in the NFL since the Colts left the city and moved to Indianapolis following the 1983 season.
The rest, as they say, is history. Modell and the Ravens won the first Super Bowl in the history of the franchise, including the Cleveland years, with a drubbing of the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV. Meanwhile, the Browns have had just two winning seasons and one postseason appearance since returning to the league in 1999. The Ravens have dominated the series, winning 19 of the 26 matchups, including the last eight. Cleveland’s last victory in the series was a 33-30 overtime victory on November 18, 2007. Derek Anderson was the starting quarterback in that game. Since then, Cleveland has seen Ken Dorsey, Brady Quinn, Bruce Gradkowski, Jake Delhomme, Seneca Wallace and Colt McCoy start at least once at quarterback.
Modell, at the league’s directive, sold 49 percent of the Ravens to Steve Bisciotti in a deal that was approved by the league on March 27, 2000. Under that deal, Bisciotti had the ability to purchase the remaining 51 percent stake of the franchise in 2004 at a price tag of $325 million. Modell retained a one percent stake in the franchise, though his 44 year tenure as the majority owner of the franchise had come to an end.
Love him or hate him, Art Modell did enough for the National Football League to warrant being enshrined in Canton with the rest of those worthy of being called Pro Football Hall of Famers. Perhaps the proximity of Cleveland to Canton has jaded writers and voters for the Hall: after all, Modell has been on the short list of semifinalists on seven occasions. Is it safe to say that Modell alienated himself from an entire fan base? Of course it is. Did he make a move that was based solely on the bottom line and not on the interest of the fans? Guilty as charged on that count as well.
Does that mean that everything he accomplished as an owner should be forgotten about and swept under the rug, never to be spoken of again? I don’t think so.