Passan: Deaf to the Spin

As interest in the Browns cranks back up, guess who shows up on local television? Yep, it's good ol' Uncle Artie, posturing before a fawning TV anchorman. While Art Modell might have had a chance to offer up some free spin on the local airwaves, Rich Passan reports that he (and most Browns fans, apparently) aren't buying it...

Art Modell turned 80 recently. Ill health might prevent him from making it to 81. Thus, a soul-cleansing is in order.

That and one last-gasp shot at being elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame while he's alive.

How else could one explain WEWS Channel 5's "exclusive" on Modell that ran on the Cleveland television station last week.

Why now? Why dredge up all the ugliness, all the venom, all the raw emotion that engulfed Cleveland when Modell announced in November of 1995 that he was moving the Browns to Baltimore?

Why?

Ratings? Of course. No doubt Channel 5's numbers rose dramatically as a result of anchor Ted Henry's multi-part series on Modell, who finally broke his silence with the Cleveland media after all these years.

But why now? And why Henry?

The enmity most fans still feel toward Modell had to be a large contributing factor. A lot of bridges needed to be repaired. Spin mode was ramped up.

What better way to get his version of the story to the most Cleveland fans after all these years than through a television interview that was hyped ad nauseam. It is a medium with which Modell feels the most comfortable.

He said he wanted to set the record straight. He wanted to let the fans know why he moved the team.

But he needed someone who was obsequious and harmless to use as a sounding board. A veteran news anchor whose sports knowledge would not quite fill a thimble. Someone who lives on the periphery of the sports world and doesn't quite understand it.

Henry was the perfect choice.

With a few exceptions, most of what Modell said was nothing more than regurgitated news: How he got shafted by local politicians; how he had not been given a fair shake by people in a position to extend him that fair shake; how he had no choice. (Yes he did. He could have publicly threatened to move the team. He could have sold the team.)

The only revelation in the otherwise fawning interview was Modell's assertion that a week before his announcement, he was advised by two "high-ranking" persons to move his team. One was on the Ohio state political level; the other held a high-ranking position in sports. He declined to name names. Said he would take them to his grave.

One is thought to be Ohio Senator George Voinovich, who was governor of the state in 1995. Modell was a significant contributor to the Republican party in Ohio and a known Voinovich supporter.

Speculation on the other person centers on NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue. But it would not be surprising if the second person turns out to be New York Giants owner Wellington Mara, a member of the old guard like Modell. Mara and Modell were very tight.

Now it might or might not be any of the aforementioned, but the fact Modell mentioned them obliquely unfairly casts aspersions on them.

Modell also said he was about to go bankrupt when he took the advice of the two people and announced the move. Imagine that. Going bankrupt while receiving large sums of money from television revenue, NFL Properties, Stadium parking, ticket sales and local radio. All this with an 80,000-seat facility.

His fellow owners thrived. Why didn't he?

He built up a debt service to the NFL that was so high (some reported it as high as $50 million), it would have taken him half a lifetime to repay the league.

Why was Modell in debt up to his eyeballs? He was a terrible businessman. Forming the Stadium Corp., which turned into a money-draining venture, was a disaster. And losing his major tenant at the Stadium, the Indians, sent him reeling.

Throw in free agency in the NFL and payrolls began their spiral upward. Modell couldn't keep up and had to borrow money.

All the while, the city of Cleveland helped finance new facilities for the Indians and Cavaliers in addition to the Rock ‘n' Roll Hall of Fame and Great Lakes Science Center. Modell was jealous. He felt left out.

He originally was approached by the Gateway Corp. to be part of a multi-purpose facility that would seat around 72,000 and house the Indians and Browns. He wanted to be the landlord. Indians owner Dick Jacobs, who had lived for several years under Modell, the Stadium landlord, said no. So did Modell to Gateway.

Major League Baseball said "build the Indians a facility or lose the team". The threat worked. Jacobs Field was built.

Modell said he was told by city officials that he would be taken care of. He told Henry that he waited and waited and never heard back from them. He said threatening to move the Browns was not considered. Mentioned something about not wanting to hurt the steel-mill worker in Youngstown. Weak.

Channel 5 conducted an online survey in conjunction with the interviews. "Has your opinion of Art Modell changed based on Ted Henry's exclusive interview with him?" elicited around 3,000 responses with 81% responding no.

Henry, moving farther away from the above-mentioned periphery, expressed surprise that the vote was so lopsided. He couldn't understand. Naturally.

Modell told Henry that it was "torturous" moving to Baltimore. He said it was "fueled by the media, who love nothing more than to tear people apart, if they can."

That's right, it was the media's fault the Browns moved to Baltimore.

Henry asked Modell if he would ever consider coming back to Cleveland. "I'd have to have a clear-cut awareness and knowledge that I was wanted back, not by a handful of people," Modell said, "not by a social let's-get-together-for-dinner thing. I'd have to get a feeling that it's pervasive all over town that they want the Modells back. Even if it's only temporary."

Henry then suggested that perhaps induction into the Hall of Fame could lure Modell back to northern Ohio.  "I think the Hall of Fame would serve as a closure for part of my life, an episode that comes to an end," Modell said. "I would like to come back to Cleveland, not to live perhaps, but to stay for a while. Visit often."

Fat chance.

Too bad because at one time, Art Modell was Cleveland's most well known figure outside of the mayor.

He was young (36) and a bachelor when he took over the Browns in 1961. He was a likable, wise-cracking, joke-telling, back-slapping, savvy New Yorker. He knew how to schmooze.

Some fans worried when he fired legendary coach Paul Brown in 1962. They feared he was a carpetbagger who would take their team away in bad times. Bad times came, but Modell proved resolute.

He high-profiled his way to the top of Cleveland social circles. He was a man about town, involving himself in just about everything. At one point, he served as foreman of the Cuyahoga County Grand Jury.

He was a philanthropist of sorts. He was generous to a fault – to his players, to his friends, to many charities. Even though he spoke with that decided Brooklyn accent, he was Cleveland. 

Modell was a people person. He liked people. People liked him. Even when his team went through tough times, his popularity remained high.

He was not afraid to take chances. He created the exhibition doubleheader at the Stadium, a highly successful venture for several years. He volunteered to host the first Monday Night Football game in 1970. He also volunteered to move the Browns to the American Football Conference when the NFL and American Football League merged. Of course, he collected $3 million for doing so.

But in becoming a popular figure, he forgot one important thing. The fans made him what he was. The fans put money in his pocket. The fans worshipped at the shrine of the Cleveland Browns. The fans were at the core of the team's extreme popularity.

Modell lost sight of that and wandered into a world of make believe. He thought he was the Cleveland Browns. Cleveland slowly left the equation. The Browns weren't Modell's team. They were Cleveland's team.

And then he made his mind-numbing, unconscionable move, one that wiped out all he had accomplished. It will haunt him the rest of his days.

Modell told Henry the most important thing to him, outside of his family, is loyalty. He treasures loyalty and called it a two-way street, rewarding people loyal to him.

But where was Modell's loyalty to the group of people blindly loyal to him for 35 years? Where was that loyalty to the fans of the Cleveland Browns?

Guess that didn't count.


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