The haunting legacy of Art Modell

Art Modell wasn’t the first owner to relocate a storied professional sports team, and he won’t be the last.

When he packed up the Cleveland Browns for Baltimore in 1995, he was moving them to a city that had had its Colts dispatched to Indianapolis in the middle of the night 11 years before.

But many in the city left behind by the Browns — who won the Super Bowl in 2001 as the Ravens — never forgave Modell, even though the NFL awarded Cleveland a new Browns franchise and allowed it to inherit the old team’s records and history.

Modell, who died early Thursday at the age of 87, had given up his ownership of the Ravens in 2004 and remained in the Baltimore area.

He passed away at Johns Hopkins Hospital, surrounded by family and longtime Ravens personnel, including Ozzie Newsome, still the team’s general manager and in his playing days an iconic tight end for Modell’s Browns.

Modell was a New York advertising executive when he purchased the team in 1961 for a then-record price of $4.1 million. The Browns won the NFL championship in 1964 with legendary running back Jim Brown, a year after Modell had created his first controversy as owner by firing another Cleveland legend in Paul Brown. He had had seven NFL crowns to his name but no trips to the championship game in his last five seasons, and his relationship with Modell was icy.

By the early 1990s, Modell saw Cleveland taxpayers foot the bill for new facilities for the Indians and the Cavaliers, and wanted to replace the aging Municipal Stadium, which despite its crumbling state was still packed every Sunday.

City leaders agreed to discuss improvements, but Modell was already secretly meeting with Maryland state government officials about the move, which occurred days before Clevelanders were to vote on a referendum to upgrade Municipal Stadium.

The referendum passed, and the city sued, but the damage was done. The new expansion Browns came into being in 1999, but they’ve had only two winning seasons.

The terrible price paid by Cleveland was noticed in other NFL cities with older stadiums, setting off a renovation or rebuilding boom. The only franchise move since then came in 1997, when the Oilers left Houston and eventually became the Tennessee Titans.

In Cleveland, the Plain-Dealer emphasized in more than one piece this morning that Modell’s accomplishments shouldn’t be overshadowed by his decision to move the team. For more than three decades, he led NFL owners in television contract negotiations that made the league the most lucrative in professional sports.

But columnist Bill Livingston couldn’t ignore how Modell had gone from one of Cleveland’s most notable citizens to its biggest ogre in virtually a flash:

“Like Veeck, the populist owner of the 1948 Indians, Cleveland’s last World Series champions, Modell could relate to anyone from captains of industry to the guy who several years later would don canine regalia in the Dawg Pound. It was unimaginable then that the same Modell would cause such emotional pain– fans crowbarring their wooden seats out of old Cleveland Municipal Stadium at the last home game in 1995 before the move, grown men weeping and women wailing like an awful Greek chorus.”

Modell had been a finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame several times, and Jim Brown has long asserted that his inclusion should be a no-brainer. Yet a Facebook page vowing to deny him induction has more than 4,000 followers.

As reports of Modell’s failing health circulated on Wednesday, a Cleveland television journalist began asking fans about how the former owner might be remembered. Fan blogger Chris Pokorny provided the essence of the hard feelings that still linger in many corners of Browns Nation, 17 years later:

“I don’t think you need to ask that question. As Donovan said, the move to Baltimore is as painful of a memory as this city has ever experienced. Fans will never forgive or forget what he did, and any soft spot that fans had for him deteriorated decades ago.”

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