For a long time, I slogged across this country, laptop slung over my shoulder and a suitcase rolling behind me. I wandered through dismal and dank airports from Tulsa to Los Angeles, Minneapolis to Florence, South Carolina. Mine is a life that was lived in corporate boardrooms, cubicles and dimly lit conference rooms hastily converted into working spaces. I was overpriced, but not rich. Hard-working, but not obsessed with work.
A saving grace of my long tenure in the strange and avaricious world of consulting was the ability to meet people from all over the world. Talking, laughing, and working with people from Europe, Latin America, and Asia was a pretty effective way to scrape away most of the vestiges of the xenophobic bias the seeps into everyone from the moment we learn to listen and before we learn to discern the wise from the ignorant.
Perhaps the other benefit of my tenure as a corporate nomad was that I learned that corporations have personalities much like people. Some are naive and misguided. Others are paranoid and ruthless. Some are just slogging through, waiting until it is time to leave. Some are lucky. Some are not.
Perhaps it is because so much of my time has been spent living the banal corporate life that I so violently reject its hostile takeover of my beloved Sunday afternoons. My escape now seems to be an extension of my vocation, and it takes about two or three beers to be able to filter out the nonsense. Still, sometimes it helps to view the world of football through the prism of business. As we pay large sums of cash to venture through billboard-lined hallways en route to the vendor of $6 beer we are, after all, consumers of a highly priced product. Even this web site now charges cash for extra services (a fair and equitable fee for a quality product if you ask me. BUY NOW BUY NOW!) It's all business, I guess, and my futile quest to expunge commercialism from football has been soundly routed.
If there is one common thread in all the corporations I have crawled inside, it is probably this: a corporation will fail when it becomes dysfunctional, and the corporation becomes dysfunctional at the moment that internal politics are prioritized over the corporate good. In other words, the corporation fails when it forgets that the customer is more important than they are. Hubris over service. Profits over value.
Which brings us to the case of one Arthur B. Modell.
As I write this, debate is raging over whether to accord Mr. Modell the highest honor possible for those involved in the Professional Football Corporation called the NFL.
Those in favor of Mr. Modell's candidacy have stated over and over that there are two things he did that justify his candidacy. For one thing, he made a moderate sacrifice in allowing his team to be realigned in order to support a corporate merger with the AFL. There are some who state that he did so because he thought that it would be easier to succeed in the younger league, but that's beside the point. Mr. Modell jumped over and made the merger easier, so he is applauded for that.
The second argument advanced in favor of Mr. Modell's candidacy is that he advocated deals with television networks, which has been a cash bonanza for the NFL. Again, some may argue that the ex-TV executive's embrace of the burgeoning medium is about as innovative as Britney Spears deciding to wear something "just a little more revealing" for the cameras. The fact still remains that the NFL has made enough money from television to keep NFL owners in caviar and their wives in glittering baubles larger than Ray Lewis' walnut-sized brain, and Modell was there when it happened.
Of course, there was that matter of the sad Cleveland affair which, as stated in the HOF materials going out to voters, "returned football to Baltimore".
I have listened to the arguments since the moment I learned that the most inflammatory screen name that AOL would allow was "ArtBtz". I won't recount them here, as they have been recounted elsewhere ad nauseum, I will simply present the conclusion that I have reached over time. Which is this:
Art Modell was an appallingly inept businessman, who escaped bankruptcy because NFL's monopolistic control had created insatiable desire in Baltimore, and because the loyal fans in Cleveland could be screwed over with impunity.
Even with this amount of control, Modell underestimated the rage that his actions would cause in Cleveland. He underestimated how important the Browns were to Cleveland and he underestimated the will and resolve of Browns fans. Clevelanders hit back at the NFL - hard - and forced an unprecedented compromise to emerge from the NFL football monopoly.
Modell didn't realize that the Browns were more than a football team. He never realized that the team was an unremovable part of the cultural fabric. He never realized that the Browns were never truly his... they were ours... imbued with the soul of a hard-working town slogging determinedly under the gray skies of winter.
The Cleveland Browns were a focused Otto Graham, the unstoppable force of Jim Brown, the you're-not-supposed-to-do-that sidearm passes of Bernie Kosar, the wild-eyed Dawg Pound, the huddled masses in the Upper Deck taking the brunt of another winter storm. They were the rapier-sharp mind of the thoroughly midwestern Paul Brown and the men from Ohio State by way of the WWII battlefields he recruited. They were the warm heart of Sam Rutiligano.
As much as he wanted them to be, they were never the quipping of a slick New Yorker cracking wise over a martini in a bar on Short Vincent.
But now comes the test. Art Modell's failures were not only financial: they were in his perception of his customers. He didn't understand them, he was disconnected from them, and he didn't respect them. He hurt them directly, in the dead of night, and after a series of lies. Art Modell valued his own ego and his own position more than his customer, the loyal fan. This wasn't a financial decision - Modell could have sold the team and walked away rich. Ultimately, this was about ego and continuing to live the life. In satisfying this need, he created more rage and anger at the NFL corporation from their customers than any other individual in the NFL's long history.
If the NFL votes Modell into the Hall of Fame they are no different than any other sick corporation. If Modell gains admittance, it will be the final proof of the NFL's dysfunction: they prize themselves over their customers. Hubris over service. Profits over value. They will prove that they have no idea what it really means to be a fan. They will have forgotten their reason for being. This test will be administered year after year.
I have seen enough. I have seen success and dysfunction. I have lived through the NFL's callous disregard for the fans and seen first-hand where their priorities are.
The NFL will fail the test. It's only a matter of when.
Art Bietz is a volunteer webmaster for Bernie's Insiders. His viewpoints do not neccesarily reflect those of Bernie Kosar, TheInsiders.com, or anyone else with the slightest amount of common sense. If you are so compelled, you can write to Art at email@example.com.
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