Cleveland Knows Art Modell is Hall of Fame Fraud

Just because the old Cleveland Browns owner is dead doesn’t mean we have to lavish him with an unearned honor, writes Larry Durstin.

In an article last week in the Baltimore Sun, sportswriter Peter Schmuck said it was high time to induct Art Modell into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and that Clevelanders should “let go of their anger and bitterness” at the late owner, which he believes is partly responsible for scuttling Modell’s candidacy all these years.

For the past 10 years, Modell has failed to make the first cut of 125 names on the eligibility list, let alone qualify as one the 15 finalists. But this afternoon, we’ll find out whether he finally makes it. He got this far primarily due to his death last September and the corresponding sympathy that accompanied it.

But that sympathy won’t be found on the streets of Cleveland. To the contrary, Browns fans have plenty of reason to despise Modell, the team’s legendary but controversial owner who died last September: among his many sins against this star-crossed city, Modell abruptly moved the Browns to Baltimore in 1995, breaking the hearts of arguably the best fanbase in pro football and fueling a burning rage that manifests itself on a daily basis throughout Cleveland’s office buildings, sports bars, and across its airwaves.

Schmuck says “there’s no point in replaying everything” that Modell did to the city of Cleveland, instead lecturing us to “get over it” and move on with our lives. In other words, once again the purportedly fragile psyche of Cleveland fandom is being spotlighted and mocked—a practice that has become a cottage industry for the national media. But Browns fans have no desire to “get over” Modell, nor should they. And just because a significant portion of northeast Ohio is disgusted by the notion of his candidacy for the Hall of Fame (which happens to be located an hour away from Cleveland, in Canton), the objective case against him is no less compelling.

The biggest piece of evidence in that case is the lack of evidence: Modell did nothing in his career to warrant this special honor; to the contrary, what he did do qualifies him only for the company of other ignominious owners such as Walter O’Malley of the Brooklyn Dodgers and Robert Irsay of the Baltimore Colts, both of whom ripped the souls out of two cities by relocating beloved franchises.

A little history is in order here: When Modell purchased the Cleveland Browns in 1961, they were the New York Yankees of pro football. Under head coach Paul Brown, the team had won seven championships (all pre-Super Bowl) over the previous 15 years, and had an astounding record of 137-37-6—that’s an average of winning 3 of every 4 games.

But Modell, an advertising hustler from New York City, knew nothing about football and even less about how to run a business. A year after he took over, the new boss summarily fired Brown—the man who essentially invented modern pro football and to this day remains the game’s greatest innovator. Adding deviousness to stupidity, he waited until the city was in the midst of a newspaper strike to do the firing. Adding classlessness to the mix, he had Brown’s office belongings gathered up in boxes and left on his doorstep. Many fans vowed never to forgive Modell for his handling of the iconic coach … and they never have.

Three years later, Modell sat by as Jim Brown, arguably the NFL’s greatest player of all time, decided to retire at the tender young age of 29, in part because Modell was fining him $1,500 per week (about $8,500 today) for not being in training camp. For the next 30 years—from Jim Brown’s retirement until Modell slithered out of town in 1995—Modell’s teams won exactly zero championships.

So what else qualifies him then?

Modell’s apologists, clamoring for a reason to induct him, cite the role that he supposedly played in structuring the historic NFL television deal in 1964. (They tend to overlook the fact that when Commissioner Pete Rozelle sealed the deal, Modell was in the Bahamas.) Modell was later assigned to negotiate a contract with CBS, and signed with them for $14 million per year—not chump change in that era. But shortly thereafter, the AFL (remember them?) negotiated a deal with NBC for a whopping $36 million per year.

Also, contrary to the Modell spinmeisters, it was Rozelle and ABC’s visionary Roone Arledge who created Monday Night Football. In fact, the most notable television issue Modell was responsible for at that time was insuring that all NFL home games, sellouts or not, would be blacked out within a 75-mile radius of the home team’s city—an absurd ban that created tons of ill will and wasn’t lifted until 1973.

Fast-forward a couple of rather fruitless decades of Cleveland football and we arrive at 1995, when Modell moved the team to Baltimore. He had run the franchise into the ground financially and was roaming around like Willy Loman, trying to get banks to lend him the money to sign free agents and build luxury boxes in the Cleveland Stadium (where he was now the landlord).

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When the Cleveland Indians, who were his tenant at the stadium, moved into a new ballpark, Modell pouted and started looking for greener pastures. Later, he blamed Cleveland’s mayor at the time, Mike White, for forcing him to leave. But Modell never said a word to the public about the possibility of a move; had he done so he almost certainly would have got what he wanted. Instead, he cried broke and cut a deal with Baltimore. Many who knew him have said that because of his pride and his belief that the city should have to come to him—rather than the other way around— he became embittered and decided it wasn’t worth the fight to stay. So he took his ball and went to Baltimore, where he again crashed and burned financially before selling the Ravens 10 years ago.

(The Browns were reconstituted with a new owner in 1999, but they’ve been pretty much the mirror image of Paul Brown’s pre-Modell team, winning fewer than one-third of their games.)

In defending Modell’s credentials, his supporters point to Al Davis, who moved his Raiders back and forth between Oakland and Los Angeles and has already been enshrined in Canton. Here’s the difference: Davis has the rings. The Raiders under Davis went to five Super Bowls and won three.

The Super Bowl brings excitement to football fans everywhere. But here in Cleveland, this particular weekend is darkened by the appearance of the Ravens, the team that used to be the Browns, and the possible election to the Hall of Fame of Arthur Bertram Modell, the carpetbagger who tore our fair city asunder. A Ravens win would be irritating, but if Modell gets elected, there will be no getting over it.