Cleveland lost an exile today. Art Modell died at the age of 87, not in the Cleveland Clinic or University Hospital he supported during his time in Ohio but in Johns Hopkins in Baltimore where he won a Super Bowl.
Modell's imprint on the institution of professional football is irrefutable. There's plenty of talk today on the innovative Art Modell who saw the future of football tied to television, a direction which still has football second only to the Olympics when it comes to grabbing the ears and eyeballs of the American public and fans worldwide. That legacy is evident every time the NFL plays on a Sunday, Monday or Thursday night during the regular season. It's evident when the NFL playoffs move games to Saturday to make entire weekend's all about football in January.
Modell earned scorn for firing Paul Brown, but it cleared the way for Brown to become an owner himself and build the NFL's business across the state of Ohio. Art Modell's Cleveland Browns became one of the most dominant brands in sports, with hundreds of Browns Backers clubs across the globe. There are few teams in sports reflected in the bland logo of a simple helmet and colors.
He chaired the first collective bargaining agreement with players, a relationship that has been stormy at times (the lockout should still be fresh in our memories) but overall gave the NFL and it's players a stable platform on which to build on. He served as President of the NFL for a time, but ultimately the growth and prosperity of the business model he was instrumental in developing was so successful he could no longer own and operate a franchise as his primary business in the very world he helped build.
And then there was the move. 1996 is a season seared in Cleveland football memories, so severe and painful that people still use the word "hate" nearly a generation later. Critics say Modell promised to never move the team, but neglect to acknowledge the promises of support never delivered by the leaders of the community on behalf of their partner for so many years.
Despite the deep roots he built here in his second home, Cleveland didn't embrace and have Art Modell's back when it was most critical. Dick Jacobs wisely pushed for an Indians-only venue where he would not be a tenant but a resident who controlled the thermostat at the Gateway ballpark later to bear his name. Gordon Gund also understood the power of turning the Gateway Arena into the replacement for the Coliseum of Richfield, another example of a visionary's dreams to extend the Cleveland franchise out into the suburbs only to see needed infrastructure abandoned with expansion of rail lines never delivered and strange interstate highway routes where markets to the western and central suburbs required fans to travel back roads instead of using easier access to I-77 via I-271. Imagine other big-city suburban venues with such poor access.
Instead, Cleveland took Modell's single-biggest tenant with 82 guaranteed dates and moved them a downtown away. Is it realistic to hold Art Modell to a promise to not even consider moving his business when the very community leaders you look to for support instead leave you in the lurch? Wearing those shoes, what would you have done?
Some compare a Hall of Fame honor for Modell to the chances of Pete Rose ever getting into Cooperstown. The two cases could not be more dissimilar; Rose disgraced himself both professionally and personally by committing the cardinal sin of baseball, then lying about it over and over and over again before realizing all too late the road to redemption was closed.
Art Modell broke no laws, no regulations, and considering the landscape he was confronted with in 1995 and 1996 left with damn few alternatives other than selling the business he'd put his life into building or taking it to another venue where he could be successful. Anyone who knew Modell, or heard him speak following the move, knows the joy of winning that 2000 season Super Bowl could never wipe out the pain of abandoning the place he chose to call home.
It's ironic, isn't it, that we reserve our worst scorn for a man who actually chose to do business in Cleveland. But then, we in northeast Ohio have a rich history of our builders turning elsewhere. Think Rockefeller in New York, or Firestone in the California wine country, or Gund brothers in California and New Jersey. Weigh the scorn reserved for the Dolan era of Indians baseball over the out-of-town ownership of the Cavaliers and soon-to-be the Browns. We want a winner, first a foremost, even when the underlying message is we won't have your back when you need it.
Art Modell deserves to be in the NFL's Hall of Fame in Canton because of a lifetime of achievement, but the reality is he was denied that honor in life for a decision made when shoved into a corner with no other way out. Fox 8's Dan Coughlin told WAKR's Ray Horner he thinks Modell would never be in the Hall of Fame because it would be so disruptive and unfair to the other enshrined of the time. He's probably right, which makes the story of a city and fans seething with anger and a team owner who clearly suffered a broken heart from making a decision he didn't want to make so incredibly tragic.