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Published: Friday, 9/7/2012

COMMENTARY

Good deeds tarnished by fateful choice

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

Ironically, the man who helped make the NFL, its owners, and its best players fabulously wealthy was without the means to cement his legacy.

The Cleveland Browns and their owner were nearly broke when Art Modell moved the franchise to Baltimore after the 1995 season.

There, he was handed a stadium and the keys to the city's vaults, but it wasn't enough. Within a year he was selling off a minority interest in the team, and then more, and by 2004 he no longer had controlling interest.

Even a millionaire couldn't survive in what had become a billionaire business.

One of Art Modell's closest friends in Cleveland was one of those billionaires, Al Lerner, who later spent more than $500 million to return an expansion Browns team to a new stadium rising on the lakefront.

It is believed that Lerner would have bailed Modell out and bought the team in '95, certainly not for the grand sum he paid a few years later, but for enough.

Why Modell didn't do that deal instead of sullying his name by moving one of sports' most storied franchises is a mystery. He said it was for the well-being of his family, and while I'm sure Modell's children and grandkids know where their next meal is coming from, the Ravens belong to someone else.

Modell died yesterday in Baltimore at the age of 87. You can't discuss the history of the NFL without mentioning his name.

He was chairman of the NFL's television committee from 1962-93 and negotiated rich contracts that set the standard for all pro sports. He brokered the deal with ABC to start Monday Night Football. He was chairman of the labor committee when the first collective bargaining agreement was reached. When NFL-AFL merger talks were at an impasse, he made it happen by agreeing to move the Browns into the new AFC.

Modell was considered a kind and generous man by those who played for him, coached for him, and by civic, cultural, and charitable groups he supported in both Cleveland and Baltimore. Yet, there was that one, fateful decision …

I was in a hallway behind the press box in Baltimore before one of the first games between the old Browns (Ravens) and the new Browns when Modell walked past. There was a glimmer of recognition on his part, and he glanced at my credential, saw "Toledo," and stopped and shook hands, inquiring as to a couple of my predecessors who had covered his teams over 30-plus years in Cleveland.

"Lots of Browns fans in Toledo," he said.

Yes, I answered.

"I hope they know how sorry …" he started and then stopped, blinking hard. He walked off without another word.

Insiders say he took no joy in moving to Baltimore. As part of a legal settlement over breaking a lease, Modell agreed to leave the nickname and the colors behind for the NFL's return to Cleveland. But he could never return. Not once.

His problems started in the 1970s when his Stadium Corporation agreed to lease Municipal Stadium from the city of Cleveland for 25 years. The lease cost was minimal, but the upkeep of the aging, crumbling old yard soon was bleeding Modell dry.

When one of his tenants, the baseball Indians, moved in '94 to a new stadium in the Gateway Complex, a project Modell did not support (which cost him dearly in every way, including politically), a key revenue stream disappeared.

Soon, he was tapped out, and moving the Browns to Baltimore was his answer.

"I hope they know how sorry …"

The sentence went unfinished, and so was Art Modell's legacy across northern Ohio.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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