Art Modell: Death of a Salesman

Fan commentator Aardvark takes a look at the sad end game for one Arthur B. Modell, ex-owner of Cleveland's Browns. <BR><BR> <I>Opinions of fan commentators may not neccessarily reflect those of Bernie Kosar or the staff of</I>

There's nothing like self-righteous hatred to bring people together.

We saw it "back in the day" when my Aunt Nellie, an Irish Catholic barely a hundred pounds would nearly burst a blood vessel in her neck screaming at Gorilla Monsoon in the old Madison Square Garden (we call it venting now, and she was really okay otherwise).  She was just one of thousands. The original beastie boy would lumber into the ring, pick out an arbitrary figure ringside, and let out a contemptuous growl. The crowd would go wild.  A great heel's reputation precedes him, and after years of eye gouging, hair pulling, and liberal use of the dreaded "foreign object," all he really had to do was look the wrong way, and thousands would come unglued.  Today audiences still boo, but everyone's in the joke.  Back then, people really did get carried away.  More than one heel leaving the ring was cut by a too close fan with a penknife, or stabbed with a knitting needle from some little old lady who will remain nameless.

Then there are those Klan rallies where about 20 yahoos get their permit to speak down in front of City Hall.  Joining them are 100 cops, there not to prevent the Klan from going on a cross burning rampage, but to keep the 500 anti-Klan protesters behind the temporary cyclone fence from tearing them apart.  Of course the Klan guy with the megaphone baits the crowd like a wrestling heel, and the cops inevitably tussle with and arrest a few protestors inebriated on their self-righteousness.  There aren't many opportunities to feel justified in wanting to beat the crap out of a total stranger.

And then there is Art Modell.  The man we love to hate.

Want to piss off most everyone in northeast Ohio?  Boo!  "Art Modell." 

The whole Couch/Holcomb thing is only temporary.  Merely mention Modell's name and a whole eight century Balkan blood feud breaks out.  Modell isn't the flame war du jour.  He is now and forever more, or at least until his death.

Uh, okay, maybe not even then.

New York Post sports columnist Gary Myers quoted Art as coming as close to an apology as he may ever make (at least closer than Pete Rose will ever come to admitting his mistakes).  Art, in his last year of ownership, was quoted "I don't think I'll get into the Hall because of the move."  

Local reaction was as predictable as if Art blinded Bernie Kosar with a foreign object: outrage, loathing, a wish that Art simply died soon, yet slowly.  One fan even commented "Even though I consider myself a Christian…" which of course you know would then be followed by the most suitably un-Christian wish on behalf of Art.  Sometimes it just feels so good and so right to hate somebody.

Folks, we all have friends or relatives who never quite seemed to move on in many respects.  They're the ones who still blame their lot in life over some perceived slight they faced from a loved one, a teacher, an old flame, their repressed parents, arcane aspects of their religious upbringing.  They haven't spoken to their sister since 1994 because she didn't RSVP their graduation from the bartender's academy (never mind it got lost in the mail—they were too angry to ask). 

Get over him.

Don't get me wrong.  Art Modell did a dishonorable thing to those who made him a lot of money over the years.  He's right:  his moving the team to Baltimore cost him entry into the Hall of Fame, and it should.  The Hall will be a mockery if it includes a bust of Modell… even a hundred years after his death.

But I can't feel righteous about hating him.  Art Modell's dishonor was to move a sports franchise that didn't justify moving.  I said it years ago and it bears repeating.  The magic genie could have struck up a bargain:  "Look, you and I know the Browns will never get anywhere with Art running the show.  So would you be willing to go without the Browns for a few years in exchange for a brand new owner and management team, and start from scratch?"  Many may have been willing to make the deal.  So it really wasn't the worst thing that could happen.  It did rid us of his bumbling.

Art Modell did not cause thousands of deaths and untold suffering (I mean suffering like starvation and homelessness, not having to watch the Steelers on Sunday).   He is not Hitler.  He is not Saddam.  He is Willie Loman. 

When he bought the Browns back in the early 1960's, Modell was a brash advertising executive out of New York.  Like those very successful at a young age, he had ironclad ideas, even though he knew little about Paul Brown and even less about football.  It took many years, if ever, for some fans to get over his firing of Paul Brown, but Brown also helped himself out the door by overestimating his legend with a trademark imperiousness.  Had Paul Brown stayed on and Modell become a puppet like his predecessor, I seriously doubt the Browns would have made it to the title games in '64 and '65.   But that was Brown's failing, and more a validation of Blanton Collier than Art Modell.

For better or for worse, Modell remained the owner for 35 years.  He was a fixture in the community.  While he drove us crazy with his periodic meddling, oversight of some god-awful drafting and free agent acquisitions, we knew that his heart was in the right place.  He wanted Cleveland to have a winner, and he was rarely hesitant about spending money to make it happen, even if his priorities seem maddeningly tied less to good scouting and more to that one annual marquee signing. 

But as time rolled by and his early success in the 60's gave way to many mediocre years, then a good run in the mid-late 80's punctuated by heartbreaking losses, shots in the owner's box saw a man sinking lower and wider into his chair.  The game and the business were passing him by.  The jet setting ad man, instrumental in helping the league forge success with television, found that making money in the NFL, not exactly brain surgery for most owners, was becoming increasingly difficult for him.  Sure, Art Modell was not in the poor house.  But his fellow owners enjoyed more success, winning Super Bowls, new stadiums, and any number of revenue enhancing ploys.  Despite a loyal fan base that routinely kept his attendance in the top quarter of the league, Art Modell wasn't making the serious money of some of his pals.

Even Art Rooney, who seemed a lovable loser through the ‘50's and ‘60's, suddenly fell into championship after championship, and was adored by Pittsburgh fans as the beloved rogue uncle.  Wellington Mara got his Lombardi trophies in the next decade.  Modell got his "Drive" and "Fumble."  It was all passing him by, and brash youth gave to the crushing defeats of middle age and beyond.  While the league respected him for his committee work, other owners saw him as easy competition and a poor relation.  They wanted new stadiums, luxury boxes, government money.  The alternative?  Surely they didn't want to end up like… him.

And Art wanted to do the same as other owners:  pass the family business onto his son, just as his good friend Art Rooney did with Dan.  He looked at David like Willie looked at Biff.  He will someday carry the mantle, and Art wanted to leave him a more substantial legacy. 

And the stadium that made him so much money became an albatross.  Art was pissing money away on band-aid renovations.  Most Browns fans didn't care (for a stadium that was ill-suited for watching football, Municipal Stadium wreaked of an atmosphere they loved), but for Art, no one was there to pay yearly loge fees or PSL's. 

So in his declining years, Art Modell decided to go out on a limb and make what for him was something of a daring business deal.

He sold his soul to the Devil.

Art traded in a 35 year relationship with the city of Cleveland by secretly working a sweetheart deal with the city of Baltimore and the state of Maryland.  Yes, people won't be happy, he reasoned, but Irsay and Rosenbloom did it.  God knows Al did it every decade.  I'm a businessman and have to look out for my own interests.

And in selling his soul, Art started down the path of weaving tangled webs to mask the deceptions.  Seemingly mystified by a far greater fan backlash than anticipated, the blame game hit stride:  the stadium deal, City Hall, the Indians.  Whatever it was, it was them, not me.  I had to do it.  Purely a business decision.

You remember the last home game.  No homemade signs allowed, all advertising had long since pulled out in disgust.  The only signs left?  Faux homemade placards leaning on the tarpaulins:  "Thanks, Art, for all the memories!" 

It was all enough to make most fans angry.  It was enough to make me think.  How far can an owner, an institution in his adopted city, make such an utterly horrible business decision, then compound it with lies, shifting blame, then become downright delusional?   What a scene out of the Titanic that must have been in the last days of the front office: "Let's put up some signs that kind of look they were homemade.  Have the Acme Sign Company make a half dozen:  ‘Thanks, Art, for all the memories!' and ‘Browns fans won't forget you, Art.'  Guys, think up a few more."  Please, tell me this was some other misguided soul's idea.

The move ultimately didn't work out for Art (to say nothing of Maryland residents livid from city and state governments giving away the bank in order to bolster the Baltimore economy all of 8 times a year).  Art's business acumen, or lack of it, continued until he was forced to sell.  He'll be out of the game in six months.  So much for David's legacy.

And in limited action, David was looking every bit the failure of Willie's son, Biff.  David will not only fail to inherit a team, he will also have to try and look busy until the inheritance comes through.

We've seen it before.  Pillar of the community gets in trouble, tries something shady to extricate himself, and only makes it worse.  Or he just enters into a bad venture that wipes him out, and he comes out the broken man.  And until the handwriting is on the wall, he tries to keep up morale by convincing himself that everything is all right, or that it will all work out in time.  When the handwriting does appear, he blames it all on others, on bad timing, bad bookies, overzealous law enforcement out to get him, on fate.  He can't bring himself to know it's his own damn fault.

It's hard to bring self-righteous hatred onto a character who faces such a fall from grace, who sees the game, or the business of the game, pass him by, who makes that one move to keep up with his brethren, then throws it all away… not just the money, but his prestige, honor, good name.  And a Hall of Fame bust.

The guilty don't escape punishment.  Art will have his money, he always did.  He has his Lombardi trophy, but not for the team that really mattered to him.  His punishment will be to never see Canton.  His long tenure and contributions to the television committee nearly guaranteed him a spot.  He was in the door, then yanked himself back out with one ill-advised act.   Canton would have been his crowning achievement, his place among NFL owners would have been secure.  But as they say in Baltimore, "Nevermore."

I moved past anger long ago with Art Modell.  Even pity.  Now I just shake my head.

It's easy to be snide at his recent admission that the move will hinder his admission to the Hall and say "Gee, Art, ya think so, you prick?!"   But it may be the closest he ever gets to self-realization.  It's easy to see that he has been deceitful and stuck in spin mode ever since.  It's harder to confront the possibility that he's truly deluded himself, or let his associates enable him.  Winning a Super Bowl trophy only helped the charade along.  But the Lombardi won't keep him warm at night.  The HOF would have, but the league will not subject itself to the abuse.

I think the significance of this minor story on a slow news week from a New York Post columnist is that perhaps Art is nearing the end of the line in more than one respect, and that he is beginning to face up to reality.  It sure doesn't seem like much—he's still quick to blame others-- but it may be the needed start.  Art has his friends, though their number has dwindled over the years, and not just because he's outlived them.  And those who remain do so despite unspoken differences.  They invariably become quiet and look out the window at the very mention of the one decision that led to his downfall.  With such quiet, Art is left to do a lot of talking with himself.

Art's name will come up many times more in his last season.  Perhaps his name will again be submitted for consideration by Canton, but the Hall may not want to stir up that hornet's nest again so quickly.  Reserve the self-righteous hatred for those who truly deserve it:  Adolf, Idi Amin, Pol Pot, Saddam.  Art is just the pathetic Willie Loman. The worst thing that can happen to a wrestling heel or Klan mouthpiece is not to be booed, but to be ignored. 

Many only hope that if Pete Rose just comes clean and apologizes for his mistakes, the doors to Cooperstown will open, if not Major League employment.  But Pete is too far-gone—way too much pride and delusion.  Even if he fesses up, he'll just "admit" later on that he did it because friends wanted him to, not because it was the truth.

Art may have given us a clue that he's not that far gone.  A little soul cleansing and coming clean with Cleveland fans would go a long way.  There is always a chance for some sort of redemption.  It can't restore everything to its rightful place, but it's a start.  Let's hope this broken man can find it.  


Copyright 2003.  Questions?  Comments?  Post in the Fans Commentary forum, or write Aardvark at

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