Rich's Rant: ESPN Goes Sci-Fi

ESPN's recent apology for the Browns' previous owner, entitled "Five Reasons You Can't Blame Art Modell", was full of inaccuracies and half-truths. So says Bernie's Insiders columnist Rich Passan, who was covering Cleveland sports during those turbulent days, and cuts through the nonsense from a network which he feels has turned to "science fiction".

It's an innocuous program. A time-filler. Something different and designed to make one think outside the box.

It's called "The Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame . . ." It's a periodic offering by the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network (ESPN). The blank at the end of the title is filled in by the network.

Recently, ESPN filled in the blank with . . . "Art Modell for Moving the Browns to Baltimore." It has run on ESPN2 and ESPN Classic any number of times recently.

You had to be a passive sports fan or off the planet if you didn't catch this piece of science fiction at one time or another.

At the beginning of the program, host Brian Kenny told the viewing audience all the facts would be presented. "All you need is an open mind," he said.

If the network had dealt with all the facts, then maybe an open mind would come to only one conclusion: Modell had no business moving the Browns to Baltimore after the 1995 season.

For the next 29 minutes, the case the network made for Modell (if you took it as gospel) was full of holes and half-truths that undoubtedly convinced some fence-sitters that the man, indeed, had legitimate reasons to move the team.

As one might expect, a program like this trip down revisionist-history lane touches a lot of nerves, most of them belonging to those who know what actually happened and were most affected.

After setting up the show with the history of the Browns, including the glory days before Modell bought the team for less than $4 million in 1961 while fronting for the Schaefer Brewing Co., ESPN launched into its five reasons.

No. 5 – Bill Belichick. If the former Browns coach (1991-95) had been as successful in Cleveland as he has been in New England, the Browns would not be in Baltimore today.

"It was never a perfect match," the ESPN report said. "Belichick was disdained for his attitude. He cut Bernie Kosar."

No. 4 – Al Davis and Robert Irsay. Two owners who moved their franchises without league permission set a precedent by doing so. Quoting Modell: "They just moved. They snubbed their noses (at the league)."

No. 3 – The Cleveland Indians. The Tribe moved to Jacobs Field and won the pennant in 1995. "That put the Browns in unfamiliar territory," the report said.

The move to Jacobs Field was costly. "We lost 40% of our revenue," said  Ravens Senior Vice President/Public and Community Relations Browns Executive Vice President Kevin Byrne, the Browns' PR chief at the time.

No. 2 – Modell had no choice. "He was on the brink of financial ruin," the report said. "He had a huge debt and a bad Stadium lease."

"If he had sold the team, he would have broken even," claimed Byrne. "He would have no team and a legacy of being a failure."

Said former Browns great running back Jim Brown: "I know he wouldn't have done it if it hadn't been financially necessary." Added former Browns cornerback and Top Dawg Hanford Dixon: "A lot of people in Cleveland put in that situation would have done the same thing."

Modell: "I had to do what I had to do to keep my family business alive."

No. 1 – Elvis Presley/Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame – The city built the Rock Hall and Great Lakes Science Center before talking to the Browns about a possible new stadium. The city, the report said, was more interested in building the Rock Hall, Gund Arena and Science Center.

"We couldn't get the johns fixed in the upper deck (at the old Stadium)," Modell cried.

Later in the telecast, Modell said the city "played a political game with me."

Now let's address a few of the arguments ESPN so conveniently overlooked.

No. 5 – Belichick, whether intentional or not, rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. He took a bad situation and exacerbated it with his arrogant and elitist attitude. If there was any disdain, it was Belichick's for the media and the fans.

No. 4 – Robert Irsay moved the Colts out of Baltimore (granted it was stupid to do under the cover of darkness) because the Colts had stopped drawing people to Memorial Stadium. In the last several years there, the team played to about 50% capacity. The Browns, on the other hand, played to near-capacity crowds even with bad teams.

Davis, on the other hand, moved because he couldn't get a favorable lease from the city of Oakland. And Modell was right about Davis, who snubbed his nose at his fellow NFL owners. A rare point in his column on that one.

No. 3 – The Indians' climb to the top of the American League put the Browns in an unfamiliar position. So? The Indians' ineptitude for the better past of 35 years allowed the Browns to capitalize heavily. And when the shoe was on the other foot, Modell became petulant because the Browns no longer were the hot topic of conversation.

Sure, the Indians' move to Jacobs Field cost him heavily. But he turned down the opportunity to move the Browns into a 72,000- to 75,000-seat all-purpose facility that would have housed both teams. Why? He wanted to be the landlord. Dick Jacobs, who had paid Modell the landlord while at the old Stadium, said no way and Jacobs Field was built.

Of course, Modell lost 40% of his revenue. And by turning down the all-purpose facility, it was he who snubbed a nose. At the city of Cleveland.

No. 2 – Of course, Modell had a choice. If, as Byrne asserted, Modell would have broken even by selling the team instead of moving it, why was that the case?

Supposedly, he was on the brink of financial ruin. How in the world did this man lose all that money with monstrous television contracts, revenue sharing and streams of revenue through merchandise?

With all those revenue streams – not to mention selling out a majority of the games – how did Modell run up a high debt service and wind up losing so much money that he would have only broken even by selling the team? Why was he in financial ruin?

There is only one answer. Modell was a reckless spender and a terrible businessman. Didn't hear any of that on the program.

No. 1 – Why didn't Modell speak up to the city of Cleveland? Threaten to move if a new stadium wasn't built? When Dick Jacobs did just that and a new facility was built.

The Rock Hall and Great Lakes Science Center were different. They were projects built with community pride and national recognition in mind.

The only mistake the city made – and I agree with the Modell people on this – was going after the Gund brothers to move the Cavaliers downtown. The Gunds didn't want to leave the Coliseum in Richfield. The city made it impossible to say no. That was a dumb move.

All Modell – who, on numerous occasions, said he would sell the team first before moving it – had to do was speak up and a new football facility would have been built.

The NFL could have stopped all the nonsense. There was precedence for the league to step in and make Modell sell the team.

Philadelphia owner Leonard Tose gambled away most of his money and the league forced him to sell the Eagles in the mid-1980s. And the league made New England owner and founder Billy Sullivan sell the Patriots in 1988 after his family lost millions of dollars promoting a Michael Jackson tour.

At the end of the one-sided program, Kenny looked at the viewers and said, "Maybe this changed your mind. Maybe it didn't. At least you saw the move in a different light."

Now, ESPN can balance the scales by producing a program called "The Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame . . . Cleveland Fans for Being Hacked Off at Art Modell."

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