LeBron broke hearts in Cleveland, but ex-Browns owner Art Modell did far more damage
On my refrigerator growing up, next to the rotating report cards and detritus of a busy life, hung two permanent decorations. The first was the rare Sports Illustrated cartoon cover, in which a bespectacled, white-haired man with a glower sucker-punched a bipedal dog wearing a Cleveland Browns jersey and helmet. The second was a bumper sticker with a simple phrase: "Will Rogers never met Art Modell."
My dad put them there just in case a day went by and he didn't think about what Art Modell had done to Cleveland. They turned into subliminal cues, kindling to a fire that Browns fans promised themselves to keep alive when Modell absconded with our football team.
Ours. Cleveland's. Not Art Modell's, even if he was the majority owner. Not Baltimore's, even if that city understood better than any other the hurt of losing a football team to a greedy businessman. Professional sports franchises are public trusts, bound to their cities by symbiosis. Don't give up on us and we won't give up on you, the relationship goes, and Cleveland always wore the Browns with pride, maybe more than anything in a city that needed something to cheer about.
[Jason Cole: Complicated legacy for Art Modell]
Sports in Cleveland have mirrored the city as much as any in the United States: filled with loss, heartbreak and an unrelenting pride that neither trials nor travails nor anything, frankly, can break. Its spirit, sporting and otherwise, is strong, steeled by its sadness. Because of the Internet and Twitter and other vehicles of vitriol available, the world got to see Cleveland at what seemed like its nadir, when LeBron James left for Miami. Jerseys burned. Words blistered. Comic Sans MS made its triumphant return.
And here's the thing: For those of us who experienced the Cleveland Browns morphing into the Baltimore Ravens, this was a sin far less damning, one that would melt away because players are meant to move and teams aren't.
LeBron James broke Cleveland's heart. Art Modell stole its soul.
Art Modell died Thursday morning. He was 87 years old. I felt nothing.
Some friends in Cleveland celebrated like they do in Oz when the Wicked Witch dies, and other friends around the country lamented the loss of someone whose reputation evolved from mediocre-and-indebted owner and devil-dealing charlatan to one of the great owners in NFL history.
The shift of Art Modell's personal narrative over the 6,148 days since he announced the Browns would move to Baltimore continues to confound. He was influential in growing football on television, the godfather of Monday Night Football, and for this his benefactors not only applaud him but look past what he did to Cleveland as if it were but a blip on his legacy and not the defining moment. A man is defined by the body of his actions, and to ignore the effect Modell's selfishness had on a city that loved football, loved its team and needlessly had both thieved is the worst sort of revisionism, the sort in which Joe Paterno's supporters engage: don't let the defining moment of the man's life color all of the good things he did.
While his sin was nowhere near as egregious as Paterno's, Modell did slim-jim his way into the Baltimore market through backdoor politicking, vote-rigging and shady 1 percenter maneuvers. He had run the Browns tens of millions of dollars into debt and had neither the savvy nor the business acumen to rescue them from it without a bailout. So he made sure nobody else sought the Baltimore market, leeched a sweetheart deal out of the city for a new stadium and then tried to explain to Cleveland with an even uglier turn of phrase than LeBron taking his talents to Miami: "I had no choice."
He did, of course. He could've waited. He could've sold to his friend Al Lerner. He busted out, and instead of doing what was honorable, Art Modell defaulted to selfish and landed on Baltimore's golden parachute a hero to those still scarred by Mayflower trucks.
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The Ravens won the Super Bowl five years later and are run by Ozzie Newsome, whose autograph I still have from a Browns training camp when I was 6. They routinely destroyed the new Browns, who have been one of the worst franchises in the league since they returned as an expansion team in 1999.
Winning may change this, but this odd feeling still permeates the new Browns. They're a real NFL team. They play in a nice stadium. In the tradition of the old Browns, they make stupid personnel moves. And yet something just isn't right about them. It's like they're imposters, delivered by pity to placate Modell's conscience.
Maybe that's why I felt nothing when Art Modell died. If there's a word to describe the new Browns, it's soulless.
I was 15 years old when I wrote my first story. My father worked at The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, and every Monday the newspaper ran a section of local teenagers' work. Cleveland's mayor at the time, Michael White, had negotiated a deal for the Browns to return by 1999. To a 15-year-old, someone who didn't understand big business and big money and corporations and greed, this was not good enough.
"There was a way the team – not only the name and colors – could have stayed where it belongs," I wrote, and I genuinely believed that. Naïveté and hope and youth were like drugs on which I couldn't stop tripping. I didn't want to believe this was happening. I couldn't understand how it did.
I vowed not to forget.
Only I did. Life took over. My parents moved. The bumper sticker and the SI cover didn't fit in the new house. LeBron left Cleveland, and I was mad, but not once did I think of Art Modell. He had sold the Ravens to a man named Steve Bisciotti in 2003. Modell kept 1 percent of the franchise.
Yahoo! Sports Radio: Jeff Passan on passing of Art Modell]
Word filtered out late Wednesday that Modell was gravely ill. I called my dad. We had watched so many Browns games together, him yelling at the TV, me learning to do the same, him diagnosing defensive schemes and taking notes on his yellow legal pad for his radio show, me trying to understand what all of it meant. He never kicked the habit. Even though he lives thousands of miles from Cleveland, he still drives to a local sports bar and meets up with Browns fans every Sunday for what has turned into more of a weekly lament than a party.
He tries to cheer for the Browns, too, the same way he did for the team that debuted in 1946 and won eight championships. Instead, he sees this bastardized version and cannot reconcile it. Almost 20 years after one man stole Cleveland's soul, my father's fire still burns.
And when I told him Art Modell was dying, he didn't say anything. He didn't have to.
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