Just about everywhere around the NFL on Sunday and Monday night, they paid respects in some form to Art Modell, who died last week after an illustrious career that spanned six decades as a team owner and major mover and shaker in the league he loved.
Everywhere except Cleveland, an unforgiving city that reviled him in life and apparently in death as well.
Sixteen years after Modell moved the Cleveland franchise to Baltimore, his family requested there be no ceremony or moment of silence because, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, “the Browns received a backlash from angry fans when they announced Friday they would have an ‘appropriate recognition’ Sunday in the home opener against the Eagles.”
Never mind Modell’s myriad charitable and civic contributions to the city, that championship season in 1964, fabulous players on his watch like Jim Brown and Bobby Mitchell, all those playoff teams in the 1980s and early ‘90s in a town the Brooklyn-born Modell considered his true home.
“I never wanted to leave Cleveland. Never,” he once told me, the opening lines I had planned to use in the first chapter of a book he wanted to write ten years ago. But after an emotional tribute from his fellow owners at a league meeting, Modell changed his mind and decided not to go ahead with the project, telling me he preferred to take the high road and leave the bitterness behind.
Still, I remember another paragraph from that unfinished book.
“Why would I move the team to Baltimore, leave a lifetime of good works and civic and social accomplishments behind, relocate my wife, my children and my grandchildren and essentially, and very unfairly, allow myself to become a vilified pariah who received more death threats in a week than most presidents get in a four-year term? There are no easy answers. Suffice to say as Pat (his late wife) and I flew to Baltimore to announce the move on Nov. 6, 1995, we could see our long-time home from the air, and tears flowed freely. “We’ll never be able to go back,” Pat said quietly, and we both knew our lives would never be the same.”
Clearly there were no easy answers. As a reporter who covered the Cleveland-to-Baltimore story, it seemed obvious to me and many others that Cleveland’s political leaders at the time were also culpable in pushing Modell out of town. Of course, his own business failings were obvious. Some years later he even admitted he was on the brink of bankruptcy when he made the move, a situation he believed surely would have led the league to force him to sell his team.
“I leave my heart and part of my soul in Cleveland,” he once said. “But finally it came down to a simple proposition. I had no choice.”
Whatever the case, Cleveland eventually came out whole. Three years after the move, the NFL awarded the city a new expansion franchise. There is now a state-of-the-art stadium on the shores of Lake Erie, and the Browns are still the Browns, with the same name, team colors and team records Modell magnanimously left behind. Sadly, the current bumbling Browns also have the second worst overall record in the league since they resumed play, but you can hardly blame that on Modell, even if some Cleveland fans still do.
And yet, after all these years, isn’t it time to recognize Modell—a revered hero in Baltimore--for something other than The Move? From his long-time negotiating of television contracts now worth billions of dollars, to his pivotal role in the merger of the old American Football League with the NFL, to his instrumental work in developing Monday night football and NFL Films, to his groundbreaking decision to make Ozzie Newsome the first African American general manager in league history, Modell’s league-first accomplishments are virtually unparalleled.
A moment of silence in Cleveland on Sunday would have been a lovely gesture.
Leonard Shapiro was a long-time sports reporter, editor and columnist for The Washington Post.