As a life long Cleveland Browns fan, I believed it was important for me to allow some time to elapse before commenting on the passing of Art Modell. Over the last several weeks numerous articles have been written about his life, career, and family. I am not going to spend too much time rehashing different viewpoints regarding Modell, rather I am providing you my personal viewpoints regarding Modell. For those who would like to read an excellent article and his moving the Cleveland Browns, I would refer you to this piece. I also provide you a youtube clip from when it was announced that the Browns were moving to give you a frame of reference of how the fans dealt with the loss of their beloved franchise.
Art Modell was a great ambassador for the NFL. He brought the NFL to television, played significant roles in owners meetings about the development of the game, and wanted winning football in Cleveland. With all that being said, he was a lousy business man and could not manage the business of the Cleveland Browns and more importantly good old Cleveland Municipal Stadium (aka the Mistake by the Lake). As a result, he took the greedy, least popular way to dig his way out of a hole. He up and moved the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore. The city that lost the Colts to Indianapolis stole one of the great franchises in sports history and provided the financial golden ticket that was needed for Modell to have “no choice” but to move the Browns. For Modell, it was worth the hatred and anger of one city, to go and be beloved in another.
For me, this move hurt greatly. My father and I lived and breathed Cleveland Browns football. We went to training camp, we went to games where we sat in the last row of the Stadium, games in the dead of winter, and a Monday night game where Bernie Kosar threw a 95 yard touchdown pass to Webster Slaughter. We died a little inside with the Fumble and the Drive. Hell, we still talk about those losses to this day. Every year we believe this will be our year. We spend countless hours arguing over play calling, player performance, or what we would do if we were GM. All of that ended in 1995. Those four years without Browns football (some would argue they are still not playing football in Cleveland) were terrible. And when the Browns returned in 1999, our love for our team did not. To this day, we do not have the same passion we once held. Of course, if the Browns would start winning, that may change things. We have continued attending games and watch on Sundays, however there is much more cynicism about our beloved Browns. I trace this all back to Modell’s decision.
Art Modell was as loved as any owner could be. The fans saw him as the owner who cared about the team and the city. After the Fumble, he hugged Ernest Byner and told him to keep his head up. The players lauded his approach. However in the late ’80s and early ’90s those feelings started to change. He began laying the foundation for leaving Cleveland. At one point, he mismanaged his money so much, he had to borrow money from several banks just to land free agent wide receiver Andre “Bad Moon” Rison. To my knowledge, he was the only owner in the NFL losing money on his football team. Modell openly complained about the stadium and fought with politicians. By 1994, it was clear, the Browns were in serious trouble. Even though he was offered a stadium deal called the Gateway Project (where Progressive Field and Quicken Loans Arena are located today), he chose not to accept the offer. Then, during the 1995 season, Modell was on an airplane (owned by Al Lerner) at a Baltimore tarmac officially agreeing to move the Browns to Baltimore. Instead of selling the team and making millions, he ripped the hearts of Cleveland fans out of their chests.
By 1998, we knew that the Browns would be back in Cleveland and playing in 1999. The kicker, the new owner would be Alfred Lerner, the one who facilitated the deal between the city of Baltimore and Art Modell. In 2001, Art Modell finally received his Super Bowl trophy and to Browns fans the hatred boiled over again. From 2001 to the day Modell passed away, the hatred just simmered. However, once he died the feelings were at the forefront again. I listened to a lot of Cleveland sports talk and fan after fan hammered Modell for his decisions. It was so bad, the Modell family asked the Browns not to plan a tribute to Modell before a recent game because they knew it would not go well.
So where does this leave me today? I believe Modell did a lot of great things in his lifetime and for the cities of Cleveland and Baltimore. However, I also believe that in life, if you make a serious bad decision, that may define your legacy. In this case, I think Art Modell’s decision to move the Browns should define him and his decision to move the Browns and take football away from the Cleveland should be his scarlet letter or albatross. His Super Bowl was his just desserts and justification for moving the team, but his decision to move the Browns should keep him from ever entering the Hall of Fame. After all, Canton is a mere 90 miles from Cleveland, and having Art Modell enshrined just doesn’t seem fitting to me.