In his own weird way, the late Art Modell was the NFL version of Michael Jackson. He was a brilliant, innovative, forward-thinking businessman armed with great wit and charm who helped propel the NFL into being America's game and by far the most successful sports business in the country.
He's also the man who ripped the heart out of Cleveland, a city that defines this country's passion for the game. He didn't just spit on the adoring fans of the Browns, he did it with a smug smile. He violated a seemingly sacred trust by moving the Browns to Baltimore in 1996.
And that is why, as Modell passed away Thursday morning at age 87, it is so hard to categorize him. Is he a hero of the game who deserves a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame? Or is he a pariah whose presence should never be glorified again, let alone be enshrined in a place less than an hour from Cleveland?
The people on both sides of this argument are fierce. Baltimore Ravens ace PR man Kevin Byrne, who himself left his hometown of Cleveland with the Browns, has defended Modell for years. On the other side, people such as standout Browns beat writers Tony Grossi and Mary Kay Cabot go clench-jawed at the first syllable of Modell's last name.
And Grossi and Cabot pride themselves on trying to be above the emotional fray.
Truth is, there is little place for Modell in that interval between right and wrong. He is either good or evil, and the battle lines are as fierce as Korea to this day. Intelligent measure of Modell's accomplishments is nearly impossible.
[Related: Art Modell passes away at age 87]
People who fight for Modell to make the Hall of Fame continually like to say that you can't write the history of the league without him. True, but Clevelanders would argue that you can't write the history of the world without mentioning Rasputin.
The fact is Modell was a marketing genius, the man who pioneered the idea of Monday Night Football and pushed for prime-time games on Thanksgiving. He even volunteered the Browns for those games when other owners thought the ideas were silly.
"I don't think you get the NFL to where it is today without Art's ideas and his willingness to push them," Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said two years ago. "Art understood the value of our product and what it meant to our culture."
Or as NFL commissioner Roger Goodell issued in a statement Thursday morning: "Art Modell's leadership was an important part of the NFL's success during the league's explosive growth during the 1960s and beyond. As the longtime chairman of the league's Broadcast Committee, Art was a visionary who understood the critical role that mass viewing of NFL games on broadcast television could play in growing the league."
Other people in the NFL, such as the great Ozzie Newsome and current Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti talk about Modell in glowing terms. Modell was a charming man, constantly armed with a joke or a story. In many ways, he was everybody's favorite uncle.
From that perspective, Modell deserves great honor. While he wasn't necessarily a great football man (he would often base his questions to the coaching staff on whatever issues were raised in the morning paper), he understood the bigger picture.
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At the same time, Modell lacked a certain business acumen that eventually led to the undoing of the team in Cleveland. That started in 1961, when Modell purchased the Browns for $4 million. He put up only $250,000 of his own money and borrowed the rest.
The problem is that Modell kept borrowing and borrowing. He was the consummate owner on credit, borrowing against the value of the team so much that he was in a terrible leverage position by the mid-1990s.
On top of that, he did a terrible job of working the back-room politics of the city. As the landlord of old Cleveland Municipal Stadium, Modell overcharged the Cleveland Indians to the point that they eventually moved to nearby Jacobs Field. When he did that, local politicians became angry when he asked for his own stadium (and control of it).
With credit bills due and no great way to increase his cash flow, Modell took the money and new stadium from Baltimore. He made the decision in the middle of the 1995 season, stunning the Browns faithful. This was the ugliest team move a city has ever seen because the loyal fans of Cleveland couldn't understand it.
Fact is, the fans did nothing wrong. The Browns sold out year after year despite a team that hadn't won a championship (or even played for one) since 1964. The home of such football luminaries as Jim Brown, Paul Brown and Otto Graham was treated with all the dignity of a youth hostel.
Modell's move to Baltimore included back-door negotiations, political maneuvering and even the deal being signed on a plane. In the immediate aftermath, Modell had his life threatened to the point that he had to leave Cleveland. As years have gone by, the violent streak waned, but the anger remained.
The NFL was so embarrassed by Modell's move that Cleveland was promised an expansion team, re-entering the league in 1999, and even agreed that the city would keep the Browns name and records.
In the center of all of it was Modell, a Brooklyn native who once talked about how the move of his beloved Dodgers in 1958 had been so crushing. Modell was the same guy who criticized Robert Irsay for moving the Baltimore Colts to Indianapolis in 1983 and had testified for the league against Al Davis when Davis moved the Raiders from Oakland to Los Angeles.
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All that virtuous talk was empty blather. As a result, many people look at Modell as an empty shell.
Sadly, neither those who love Modell nor those who hate him are necessarily wrong.
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