This is Super Bowl week, and the most important question isn’t who will win the game. No not at all. The question on the lips of Cleveland and Baltimore fans especially is, will former owner Art Modell be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame?
Both sides are asking the same question, with different answers. Of course Raven fans think Modell deserves induction because he brought football back to the city in 1996. Yet Cleveland fans are opposed for the same reason. No matter what, Modell will always be remembered for the move rather than anything he did for the NFL. In retrospect, Modell’s move was the most important thing he did for the league.
It would be a nice story on the week of stories. Art Modell’s Ravens, wearing his name on their uniforms all season, dedicating this year to his memory after he passed away just before opening day. After all the NFL is all about a great and alluring narrative. The commissioner made sure of that by reinstating Sean Payton as coach of the New Orleans Saints on the week the championship game comes to the city.
Yet in looking over a career, what did Modell do that a Hall of Fame invite should be merited? There are different answers depending on which side of the debate you come down on. Simply put, Modell is remembered for only four things, two would have happened one day, one was made with other owners and the final memory because Modell was a terrible businessman.
Item one, Modell fired legendary coach Paul Brown. It was a cold, dreary day in January of 1963, only three years after purchasing the team for $250,000 of his own money and borrowing the rest. Modell stunned the world of football by firing Brown as coach and general manager of the team he organized in 1945 and coached for 17 seasons. Modell said he made the move in the best interests of the Browns, and for one year it looked genius.
Blanton Collier was named to replace Brown, only after getting the former coach’s blessing. Ironically in 1964, Cleveland beat the Baltimore Colts 27-0 for the NFL championship, the last title a Cleveland team has won.
Item two, Modell volunteered to allow the Browns to move into the AFC during the merger in 1970. The NFL absorbed the AFL and three teams, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Baltimore were paid $3 million each to move into the AFC. Baltimore then won the Super Bowl that year.
But why should Modell be awarded for that move when he was paid for it. The other two owners moved, yet weren’t inducted because of it. Pittsburgh owner Art Rooney is in the Hall, but only after the Steelers had won 4 Super Bowls. For almost 40 years his Steeler teams were the definition of mediocrity at it’s finest. Carroll Rosenbloom was the owner of the Colts at the time and is not enshrined, even though his team won a Super Bowl and participated in another that led to the merger. Super Bowl 3 in 1969 when the New York Jets upset the Colts 16-7.
Another thing Modell is given credit for is creating Monday Night Football. That is an absolute fallacy. Yes Modell allowed the Browns to play in the first Monday Night game. Pete Rozelle, then the commissioner, was good friends with Modell and needed a “name” team to play. Modell reportedly agreed, but only if a New York team would be the opponent. Modell knew television and wanted a big audience and a larger pay day for his club. When the Jets agreed, and with Joe Namath as a draw for Monday night, Modell was in. The Browns won 31-21. Monday night history was made.
Item four, he moved the Browns. Modell blamed the city of Cleveland for the move and said he “had no choice.” His reasons included the Indians and Cavs getting new arena’s and moving downtown, while he waited for a new stadium. Modell felt left out.
The real problem was he was running a cash cow into the mud, taking an NFL franchise with massive amounts of television money and going bankrupt. Modell needed an influx of money and turned to Baltimore for it.
The Browns were selling out the old Municipal Stadium every Sunday. There were no more rabid fans than those in Cleveland. Yet Modell couldn’t make money. He borrowed to pay free agent Andre Risen his bonus in 1994. This after all the banks turned him down because they had seen his balance sheet and knew he was ruined.
Another perspective on Modell should be seen in Cincinnati and Baltimore. Modell is the Only man in NFL history to produce two expansion teams he had no part of. After Paul Brown was fired, he spent 4 years working on gaining an expansion team. Finally in 1968, the NFL awarded him with the Cincinnati Bengals, a team Brown would be the owner, GM and coach.
Then come the Cleveland Browns. After moving the franchise, Cleveland sued Modell for illegally breaking his stadium lease. In a settlement, the NFL promised the Browns the name, colors, history and an expansion team in 1999.
Not one thing mentioned provides evidence Modell should be named as an enrollee into the Hall. ESPN, the NFL and the city of Baltimore think Cleveland should just “let it go” and give up the Modell “hate-speak.” One could ask if Baltimore would stay quiet should Robert Irsay be nominated for the Hall. Irsay moved the beloved Colts to Indianapolis. Should Modell be entered because he gave the name back to the city?
The NFL and Roger Goodell have no idea the scars Modell left. After Modell’s death, the league demanded a moment of silence in his honor before every game that weekend, including Cleveland. It was a recipe for disaster, yet Goodell didn’t care. He mandated the Browns honor Modell, thinking the fans should be over it. Only after Modell’s son David showed common sense and asked Cleveland be allowed to bypass the moment did the NFL give the exemption.
And if he does get the honor, what happens in Canton? Only 45 minutes south of Cleveland, does the NFL have any idea about the possible response? How could they stop the protests, the shouts and disruptions during the ceremony. David Modell might be even more hated in the area than his father. After all it was David who lied to a question one month before the move was leaked by saying there was “no way” the Browns would ever leave Cleveland. How could an acceptance speech be made in this atmosphere?
For the above named reasons it must be asked what has Modell done to deserve the Hall? It hasn’t even been mentioned a contract dispute with the greatest running back of all time, Jim Brown, led to his premature retirement. Then in 1967, Modell had contract disputes with five African American players. Those five refused to report to training camp and Modell eventually traded or released four of them, only keeping standout running back Leroy Kelly. Kelly allowed his contract to end, but with the nature of free agency in the NFL at the time, couldn’t leave Cleveland.
Modell did nothing to produce notoriety. He finally won a Super Bowl in Baltimore, yet even after that had to sell the team because his money troubles continued. Steve Bisciotti bought him out and provided an influx of money into the franchise. Even in Baltimore, with a new stadium and luxury loges, Modell couldn’t make money.
He needs 80% of the vote to be enshrined. On the cusp for years and has not been close to achieving the needed ballots, this year is different. He’s gone and the Ravens are in the Super Bowl. What could top off the week any better?
After all, the NFL loves a great story.
Dave Mitchell co-hosts with Mark Donahue the UST talk show “Ohio Baseball Weekly,” highlighting the Cleveland Indians and Cincinnati Reds. The Show returns March 4 with a two hour opening night special starting at 9 pm.