State Your Case: Art Modell

Long-time owner of the Browns, Ravens

(Published June 2019)

Dan Reeves moved his NFL team from Cleveland to Los Angeles. Lamar Hunt moved his AFL team from Dallas to Kansas City, and Al Davis moved his from Oakland to Los Angeles…and then back.

Leaving one city for another didn’t keep any of those three team owners out of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

But bolting one city for another with his NFL franchise is keeping Art Modell out of Canton.

Thou shalt not leave Cleveland.

But that’s what Modell did in 1996. His inability to reach a stadium deal with the city of Cleveland triggered his relocation of the franchise to Baltimore. This after Cleveland built a ballpark for the baseball Indians and an arena for the NBA Cavaliers that both opened in 1994.

Modell promised never to leave Cleveland when he took over controlling interest of Municipal Stadium in the 1970s. But by the 1990s the Browns were losing millions each season playing in the ancient facility. So he moved.

“I leave my heart and part of my soul in Cleveland,” Modell said back then. “But finally it came down to a simple proposition. I had no choice.”

Modell did leave behind the colors, marks and logos of the franchise in Cleveland – something the Cardinals didn’t do when they left Chicago for St. Louis, and the Colts didn’t do when they left Baltimore for Indianapolis. Modell changed the name and identity of his franchise in the move from Browns to Ravens.

Cleveland went without an NFL team for three seasons before the city finally built a new lakefront stadium and the league placed an expansion franchise there in 1999. Five years after leaving Cleveland, the Ravens won the first Super Bowl in franchise history in 2000. Although Modell passed away in 2012, the animosity remains. He has been a Hall-of-Fame finalist twice – in 2002 and 2013 – but was passed over by the selection committee each time.

Lost in his Hall-of-Fame candidacy was all the good Modell did for his team and his league.

Modell served as the only elected NFL president from 1967-69 upon the merger of the two leagues. He served on the realignment committee and facilitated the merger by agreeing to move his Browns from the NFL to the AFC. He also served as chairman of the league’s labor committee and was a key figure in the negotiation of the league’s first collective bargaining agreement in 1968.

Modell was a member of commissioner Pete Rozelle’s inner circle and was instrumental in the creation of NFL Films in 1965. That television arm of the NFL has since won more than 100 Emmys.

Modell also served as chairman of the league’s TV committee for 31 years (1962-92), negotiating contracts with the networks that drove up the value of the league and its teams – contracts that deepened the revenue pot from the millions into the billions under his watch. He also helped launch the Monday Night Football franchise. His Browns played in the very first Monday night game in 1970.

“You can boo him because you disagree with him moving,” said defensive back Rod Woodson at his own Hall-of-Fame induction in 2009, “but you can’t disagree with what he did as an owner for the league and his players. I hope the voters get this right by putting Art Modell in the Hall of Fame. He belongs there.”

Modell had two championship rings as an owner, one in Cleveland (1964) and the other in Baltimore (2000). His teams played in seven league or conference championship games, and he also hired Ozzie Newsome as the NFL’s first African-American general manager.

“Regardless of whether or not you think Art deserves to be in (the Hall of Fame),” said Jim Brown, the most revered of all Cleveland Browns, “he won the world championship in 1964, he won a Super Bowl in 2000 and he was a great inspiration to the television development of the National Football League.

“So why should he not be in the Hall of Fame? I say he should be regardless of what the people of Cleveland think. You just don’t deal with revenge and animosity to a man who has done so much for the game.”

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