That line from Bill Maher’s “tribute” to Jerry Falwell came
to mind today as I heard that former NFL team owner Art Modell had passed on
Sorry, Art. I can’t say “goodnight” to you here, but I can
say “good riddance.”
Modell owned the Cleveland Browns for more than 30 years
before taking the team to Baltimore and renaming it the Ravens. He did this
despite the overwhelming protestation of Browns fans, the city of Cleveland and
the NFL itself.
For this reason, Modell was essentially exiled from his
adopted hometown and despite his decades of service to the NFL and his work in
advancing it through the AFL/NFL merger remains a Hall of Fame reject.
However, Modell was an asshole long before he decided to
treat Cleveland like a roll of Charmin.
He bought the Browns in 1961 and fired the team’s iconic
coach and namesake, Paul Brown, just two years later. According to Cleveland
legend, the timing of Brown’s firing was set to coincide with a citywide
newspaper strike, as to avoid any backlash.
Brown had won seven titles. Modell won the 1964 title with long-time
Browns assistant Blanton Collier at the helm. It would be the city’s last major
And yet, he would do the city one better in 1993 when coach
Bill Belichick clashed with quarterback Bernie Kosar.
Kosar was a local kid from Boardman, Ohio, who led the Miami
Hurricanes to a national championship. Through a series of maneuvers to qualify
for the 1986 supplemental draft, Kosar might have been the only athlete ever to
game the system in an attempt to play IN Cleveland. He often called it his
Kosar was the guy who took the Browns to the AFC
championship game multiple times and appeared poised to make a run in 1993 as
well, when Belichick benched him in favor of Heisman washout Vinny Testaverde.
To sooth the wound and attempt to smooth the waters, Modell referred to Kosar
as “my son” and gave him a 5-year, $27-million contract extension.
Kosar was cut a week or two later. In a sweet twist of
irony, Kosar was signed as a back up QB for the Dallas Cowboys, who won the
Super Bowl that year.
Of course, at the time Modell allowed this to occur, the
Browns were 5-3 and in the hunt in the AFC Central. Testaverde was hurt and the
team had no legitimate starter.
And, hey, when you can take the field with the immortal Todd
Philcox leading the charge, you have to take that chance, right?
In the early 1970s, Modell took over as the landlord of
Cleveland Municipal Stadium. Modell saw this as a venue to quick cash, as he
would take over the stadium from the city for $1 per year while assuming all operating
costs and revenue. The trick was that while the Browns played 14 to 16 games
per season, the other tenant, the Cleveland Indians, would play 81 home games
each year. Thus, Modell was able to charge both his own team and the Indians
rent, thus doubly feathering his own pockets. Despite this, he consistently
lost money on the deal and the stadium continued crumble. When the city worked
with new Indians owner Dick Jacobs to build a baseball-only park, Modell
refused to find a way to become part of the Gateway Project and attempted to
block the construction. In the end, the Indians got the stadium and Modell lost
out. He then began looking for a way out.
Like it or hate it, the NFL is a license to print money. The
league has salary caps, non-guaranteed contracts and revenue sharing. Stadiums
routinely sell out for exorbitant prices, concessions are overpriced to the
point of avarice and this shows no sign of stopping any time soon. You almost
have to TRY to lose money if you own a team in the post-merger world of the
And yet, lose Modell did.
He consistently reported losing money throughout the 1970s
and 1980s. He once noted that he had to “go to four or five banks” to find
someone who would lend him the necessary money to finance wide receiver Andre
Rison’s $5 million bonus.
(And, hey, when you have a chance to sign a guy who’s
nickname is “Bad Moon” and who had his rap star girlfriend burn his house down,
you really should take that chance, right?)
Think about this for a second: Imagine an NFL majority owner
showing up at a BANK and having
him BEG for a loan. And then imagine that the guy had to do that four or five
times until he found someone who would pony up.
Even in the wild post-Reagan deregulation, consumption-based
economy, FOUR OR FIVE BANKERS decided that an NFL OWNER was a BAD INVESTMENT.
Modell never figured this out.
In 1995, Modell did figure something out: Other cities want
teams too. He cut a backroom deal to move the team to Baltimore, ignoring pleas
from civic leaders to simply sell the team to his friend, billionaire Al
Lerner. Modell repeatedly said he wanted to keep the team for his family.
Part of me always wanted to blame Baltimore for this. I
found it offensive that the city that watched Robert Irsay steal the Colts out
of town under the cover of night would do the same thing to someone else’s
city. It always felt as incongruent as a rape victim going out and becoming a
Despite a free, modern stadium and tax breaks that would
make Scott Walker blush, he kept losing money. Each year, he had to sell a
little more of the team.
When he died, he owned 1 percent of the team, which some
people viewed as a thinly veiled way to get around a multi-million dollar
finder’s fee he would owe if he ever sold the team.
So much for “the family.”
So much for “the Browns” who remain a laughing stock
expansion team that was reborn in 1999 in attempt to shut the city of Cleveland
So much for death being the ultimate equalizer, in which we
all look for something nice to say about someone who has gone.
Sorry. I can’t.
I can’t look at photos of his fat, toady face or listen to
clips of his self-serving bullshit or even watch a Ravens game without getting
Modell had his vision blurred by his own arrogance,
frittered away money through his own stupidity and damaged a glorious franchise
through his own greed.
If I looked hard into his past and tried really hard to find
something great about him, I’m sure I could, but doing so would only make me as
hypocritical as he was.
It’s like having to compliment a chef on his choice of
In his final years, people talked about him with a slightly
softer tone (outside of Cleveland, that is). It reminded me of a book I once
read called “Nixon Reconsidered,” which was written near his death in 1994. The
idea was that perhaps now that time had passed, it was worth giving Tricky Dick
a pass. He did some good things and had some bad breaks and some regrets and…
Gee… shouldn’t we let bygones be bygones?
Each time Modell comes up for the Hall of Fame, this issue
reemerges. Each time, a good many journalists and fans recall how Modell took a
shit in the punch bowl and bolted from the party without saying so much as a
Perhaps the only thing about Art Modell that made me happy
was going to ESPN.com and finding his obituary and noticing two things:
1) It wasn’t worth putting out front. I actually had to dig
for it on the site.
2) It couldn’t refer to him as “Hall of Famer” Art Modell.