The news came across in rather pedestrian, almost unobtrusive fashion. Art Modell, former owner of the Baltimore Ravens, former owner of the Cleveland Browns, died of natural causes in his adopted city of Baltimore. He was 87 years old.
Somehow I always imagined that the news would come across with a far bigger impact, at least in Cleveland. But maybe it’s because the fans, like me, never figured that Modell would actually die.
By all accounts, Modell had been on his death bed since the early ‘80s. He had heart attacks and all manner of maladies and yet hung in there to live another day. He was Hyman Roth, perpetually dying but always sticking around as a thorn in someone’s side. Even Modell saw the humor in his supposedly poor health, often joking about how he continuously cheated death. It wasn’t the only thing he cheated.
So his actual death caught me a bit flat footed. I had started to write his obituary several times over the years but gave up because I became convinced sometime about 10 years ago that Modell wasn’t human but an apparition, a vampire perhaps, that would roam the world forevermore and scrapped the project. It doesn’t matter. His story is burned into my brain.
The Baltimore Sun had a fawning tribute to Modell and why not? Modell returned football to the city of Baltimore after it had been screwed over by Bob Irsay. I felt sorry for Baltimore when that happened and then cheered when Homeland Security added them to the foreign enemies list after they conspired with Modell to steal the Browns.
Modell didn’t pack up his team and move it in the middle of the night like Irsay did, but he might as well have. The effect was the same, but just on a different city. And because of it, Modell forever changed his legacy and how he was perceived in both life and now death.
Thankfully Cleveland, with substantial assistance from the NFL, stopped the cycle of abuse by simply creating a team from scratch. And despite all the problems with Browns 2.0, it remains a point of pride that the city didn’t have to steal someone else’s team to get football back. Our crappy team is our own.
But back to Modell, although, truthfully, even today nearly everything about the Browns has a relationship to him. I’ve always thought, for example, that the way it all went down, with Al Lerner helping lure Modell to Baltimore and then Lerner landing as the new owner of the Browns was a masterstroke of sleight-of-hand perpetuated by Lerner. Certainly Modell saw it that way as shortly after the move, Modell and Lerner had a falling out. And where would Browns 2.0 be without the abiding influence of Al and Randy Lerner? They were better owners than Modell in the sense that they had more money. But they were not any more technically proficient.
Meanwhile, Modell was a hero in the minds of the citizens of Baltimore and when the Ravens, the re-constituted re-named Browns, won the Super Bowl years later, Modell become an icon. As he did in Cleveland, Modell became an active philanthropist and social gadfly. It endeared him to the non-profit community in Baltimore just as it had in Cleveland. On that score, but only on that score, Modell had a life well lived.
Death has a tendency to cause people to reconsider and as a society we find it distasteful to speak ill of the dead. But the act of dying doesn’t absolve Modell. The facts remain the facts even though Modell spent most of the last 16 years trying desperately to change the narrative. Almost from the moment that he stuck a knife in the collective backs of Browns fans, Modell began trying to reshape the story so that he became the victim and not the perpetrator. As Modell was fond of saying, “I had no choice” but to move the Browns.
Modell had a choice. He always had a choice. He just didn’t choose to exercise the right one. And that was the problem with Modell. He had a unique knack for making the exact wrong decision. The bigger the decision the more likely he was to get it wrong.
The real legacy of Modell, at least in his professional life, can be boiled down to one sentence. He was the only owner in NFL history to go broke. Imagine that. NFL ownership is essentially a license to print money. Jimmy Haslam III just paid a billion dollars to gain controlling interest of the Browns and thinks he got a great deal. He probably did.
While other owners couldn’t find enough pockets to stuff all their cash into, Modell seemed to walk around like the Monopoly character—slumped shouldered, empty pockets turned out, frowning. Ultimately, he was forced to sell his franchise in order to make ends meet.
There are plenty who will claim that Modell was a visionary and perhaps he was. He’s often credited with creating Monday Night Football but that, too, is a fallacy. Pete Rozelle was always the visionary and the driving force behind that franchise. Roone Arledge and Chet Forte at ABC created what MNF eventually became. Modell pushed to have the Browns play in that first game, certainly, but that’s a far cry from being the”Father of Monday Night Football” as some of his sycophants have suggested.
Modell’s life was always far more fantasy than reality, anyway. It was a consistent theme which isn’t a surprise considering his background as a former Madison Avenue advertising executive. But in that he was more in the vein of Roger Sterling then Don Draper. What Modell was good at, like Roger, was schmoozing. It gave Modell a reputation as a player. But what Modell wasn’t good at, like Roger, was doing. True he was able to put together a group and buy the Browns but for most of his career and to those in the know, Modell was someone they had to manage around.
Modell was known as a generous soul and in some sense he certainly was. But he also was ruthless and inept. He blew every penny he ever got. He installed his idiot son David as CEO of the Ravens and all David did from that point forward (and, truthfully, in all years previously as well) was embarrass himself and the family. That’s just for starters.
Modell lost a breach of fiduciary duty lawsuit filed by Bob Gries, the former Browns minority owner, over losses actually incurred by Modell’s Stadium Corp. that he tried instead to saddle instead on to the books of the Browns. He’d been sued by the Andrews Trust, the successor to a business adviser that helped Modell originally buy the Browns. Under the terms of a 1963 agreement, Modell was to pay a $30 million finders fee to the Andrews Trust upon his sale of the team. To counteract that claim, Modell kept a small piece of the Raven franchise so that he could argue that because he didn’t sell all of the team, money still wasn’t owed.
But ultimately none of it mattered. He died not as an NFL owner but as a kind of forlorn has been surrounded by the adopted sons he coddled.
Modell’s passing will surely open up the wounds of Browns fans for a day or two but a new season is starting and he’ll soon be mostly forgotten. Fans here are 13+ years into a new team and have much more parochial concerns. But as the history of the NFL continues to be written, Modell will forever be remembered not for his philanthropy or his love of family but merely as the guy who moved the Browns and screwed the fans.