Art Modell Legacy: Beloved in Baltimore, despised in Cleveland

Art Modell was a good guy who got screwed.

Screwed by the city of Cleveland and screwed by myriad myopic sports fans from said city who refused to let go of something Modell desperately tried not to let happen.

Modell, 87, who died early today at Johns Hopkins Hospital, will be remembered by a generation of Ravens fans as the man who brought the NFL back to Baltimore some 20 years after the town’s beloved Colts were sprinted off to Indianapolis in Mayflower moving vans in the middle of the night.

In Cleveland, though, to many folks he was a despot who betrayed the citizenship beyond the point of redemption.

Look, the guy did what he had to do.

Modell became the original Browns’ owner in 1961 and steered the franchise through a time of unexpected growth for the league and also provided keen behind-the-scenes insight both to the team and its governing body at a time when across-the-board popularity of the sport grew at paces few could have imagined.

He was a good guy who got screwed because the fandom in Cleveland had grown complacent.

We’re the Cleveland Browns. Paul Brown and all that. We’re NFL royalty.

Yeah, well, not so much.

All Modell wanted was the for the city and the state to provide the Browns with the type of financial backing received by other professional teams.

New stadium? Nope.

Refurbishment of the then-current but antiquated stadium? Nope.

Anything? Nope.

We’re Cleveland, and the Browns are ours and we have other, more important matters to address.

So Modell took his ball and bolted for Baltimore.

As well he should have.

As recently as two years ago, this reporter watched Cleveland-area sports writers making their rounds through the press box during a Browns home game to vilify Modell to out-of-town media, demanding he never be considered for inclusion into the NFL Hall of Fame.

Never mind that Modell helped make the NFL what it is today, that he helped steer the league through the first ripples of union-management strife, that he helped bring Monday Night Football to its lofty heights and helped hasten a merger between the NFL and the AFL.

No, Modell never was able to truly appreciate that – although others did.

Instead, he never returned to Cleveland because of death threats.

That’s right. Death threats.

Say what you will about Bob Irsay, the late Baltimore Colts owner who likely would’ve been figuratively spat upon had he returned to these parts.

But death threats?


Art Modell did what he had to do when he had to do it and when he sorely didn’t want to do it, and Baltimore is better place for it.

The guy got a raw deal – or no deal – in Cleveland.

Case. Closed. Period.