Ten Years Later, Modell Remains Unconvincing

The ex-owner of the Browns franchise appeared Thursday afternoon on Cleveland radio, in yet another attempt to provide a rationale for his decision to move the club in 1995. OBR publisher Barry McBride recaps the interview and provides some thoughts on the questions which still remain unanswered after ten years...

It's easy to tell that the NFL post-season has arrived in Cleveland, because the media is full of past and present Browns owners trying to explain themselves.

Current Browns owner Randy Lerner is making a carefully coordinated tour of the town's biggest newspapers,  interviewing yesterday with the Plain Dealer and today with the Akron Beacon-Journal.

Meanwhile, ex-Browns owner Art Modell spoke with Browns flagship station WTAM for over a half-hour on Thursday afternoon.

An audio recording of Modell's interview with afternoon radio host Mike Trivisonno has been archived on the radio station's web site (links below). The interview is involving and undeniably "good radio".

Still, be warned that the interview can be painful and irritating listening for many Browns fans, still raw from the move of the team to Baltimore in 1995. Many fans in the OBR forums expressed frustration with the radio station's decision to allow the Browns ex-owner to spin his view of events without significant pushback from the host.

Regardless, the interview is valuable for Browns fans with a half-hour to spare and a desire to get better understanding of why the team re-located.

Modell has been attempting to make his case to Clevelanders for several years. In 2005, Modell granted an interview to local TV news anchor Ted Henry, and started off 2006 by speaking to Trivisonno, who began his odd career trajectory as a caller to legendary sports talker Pete Franklin.

Both interviewers are relatively safe choices from Modell's perspective. Channel 5's avuncular Henry has never covered sports and was distant enough from the situation to restrict himself to mostly obvious questions, while WTAM's Trivisonno has earned by the enmity of some Browns fans by his enthusiasm for (and cooperation with) the Carmen Policy regime. The Browns pre-expansion owner has carefully avoided more aggressive media outlets.

Modell has granted these interview requests despite his protestations that he will never get a fair hearing in his old home town. His comments to Trivisonno were rife with similar contradictions.

The team's old owner comes across as sometimes gruff, frequently bitter, and a bit addled. Some of the legendary wit can still be heard, but is accompanied by such malapropisms as his contention that he is still considered "a piranha" (rather than pariah) in Cleveland and Modell's insistence that he "suffered the competitive balance of not being able to compete".

Of all the goofs, none was bigger than Modell's demonstrative refusal to name a senior political official who told him to move while providing enough information to easily guess that person's identity. Alternately, listeners may be amused, angry, or even a little sad listening to the comments of an 80-year-old man hoping to be remembered as more than the guy who sucker-punched the City of Cleveland.

Here are some of the items that might be considered newsworthy from the interview. Modell offered up the following:

  • Then-Governor George Voinovich called Modell and essentially told him to move the team because he would not get any help from politicians in Cleveland. Senator Voinovich later called the station and denied that there was any truth to Modell's story. Voinovich was not mentioned by name, but could be obviously identified through several slip-ups by Modell during the course of the interview.
  • Modell claims to have lost over $80 million due to maintenance and capital improvements on Municipal Stadium, which he says he took over solely due to his desire to help the City of Cleveland.
  • An offer was made by Cleveland politicians to build a new stadium for the Browns, but the plan would have required a $40 million investment by Modell.
  • There was no up-front payment of $50 million to the Browns to move to Baltimore, as was reported at the time.
  • There was never a demand to the Plain Dealer that they fire or suspend beat writer Tony Grossi, although Modell did say that he complained to the newspaper about a story produced by the writer.
  • Al Lerner did not orchestrate the team's move from Cleveland in order to secure a new Browns franchise for himself. Rather, according to Modell, the expansion owner "popped up out of the woodwork" when a new franchise was awarded to Cleveland.

Perhaps more intriguing than these ten-year-old assertions are the contradictions in Modell's stories, or areas where key details are omitted. Here are some items which fall out after listening to the interview:

  • Modell claims that it was impossible to sell the team due to the Stadium lease conditions, but clearly never made any serious inquiries to potential owners. Instead, he dismisses a sale of the team as being "impossible" due to the team's Stadium situation. At the same time, some potential owners, among them Al Lerner, might not have had any issues putting $40 million into a new stadium as suggested above. As a result, such quick dismissal of the idea of selling the club appears to simply be convenient reasoning masking a desire to retain control of the franchise.
  • The ex-owner attempts to portray Municipal Stadium as a money pit he absorbed solely as a civic duty, but later claims that he felt the proposed deal was "Good for Cleveland, good for the Indians, and good for the Browns" when he approached Cleveland about it.
  • While pointing to Municipal Stadium as the sole cause of his financial troubles, Modell is more than happy to bask in the glowing view that he "took better care of players than any other owner". It has been suggested more than once that Modell's spendthrift ways and profligate hiring practices played a large role in his demise.
  • As landlord for the Cleveland Indians, Modell said that he gave the Indians a "good price" on their use of Municipal Stadium, stating that it was the same deal that was given to the Browns. Omitted from his thought process was the ability of the financially struggling Indians to afford the same rates as the successful football franchise. The Indians remained cash poor and unappealing to new owners until they were able to share in Stadium profits via the Gateway project.
  • Underlying Modell's lack of interest selling the team and the contention that city leaders felt he was "bluffing" is the sense that the severity of Modell's financial condition was not communicated or remained deliberately hidden. By the time he agreed to move the team, Modell claims to have been 60-90 days away from bankruptcy. If this is true, it clearly wasn't well-communicated to city leaders who could have taken political advantage in "saving" the franchise. The conclusion that city leaders not so much "lied" as simply couldn't possibily produce any satisfactory answer on Modell's surprisingly urgent timeframe is hard to escape.
  • A considerable section of the interview is given over to attacking the Plain Dealer and beat writer Tony Grossi. Modell despairs of Grossi's "crusade" to keep him out of the Hall of Fame and claims that the writer was "set on a course to do me in". Nowhere does Modell suggest that Grossi's "crusade" is tied to his own decision to abandon Browns fans or that his efforts likely mirror the feelings of a decided majority of Browns fans.
  • During the interview, there are also claims made that the city "took customers away" by selling loges for the Cleveland Indians in the new Jacobs Field ballpark. At no point does Modell point to the individual responsible for selling those loges, his son David Modell, as having any culpability. The Orange and Brown Report, on the other hand, has spoken with Municipal Stadium loge owners who have told us that it was David Modell's perceived arrogance and refusal to lower loge prices after the loss of 81 Indians home games that played a key role in their decision to abandon their Browns loges.

Naturally, any journalist with an interest in the subject and listening to the interview would have a nice list of questions to have asked. Our list would have included:

  • Why did Modell insist on "tabling" the discussion of a new Stadium during the season?
  • Did this "tabling" occur before or after the deal was taken from Baltimore?
  • Why did Modell fight so strenuously against a Baltimore expansion team in 1993?
  • Why did David Modell tell Cleveland media that the Browns were not going to move from Cleveland only days before the story broke?
  • Were prospective owners such as Al Lerner ever asked if they had an interest in buying the team? Were they ever involved in discussions with the city about the commitment required from the team to build a new stadium?
  • What role did inheritance taxes play in the team's financial goals and the decision to move? What role did improper planning for inheritance taxes play? What would have happened if Modell had passed away in 1994?
  • Why did politicians and city leaders feel that Modell was bluffing them if the situation were so obvious and urgent? Why did they not have access to information that showed that the owner would have "no other choice"?

It takes harsh lighting to see the truth, and tough follow-up questions to pry the facts out of convenient rationalizations.

For Modell to truly win back Browns fans and prove his case, he must tell his tale not only in safe environments, but in response to journalists who will ask him hard questions or follow up on seeming contradictions in his story.

Until Modell makes the difficult decision to face those who will not coddle him, many hard-core Browns fans will continue to regard him, at best, as a buffoon, or more likely as a traitor who erased decades of good will through greed and self-interest.

It is those Browns fans - who fought against Modell in 1995 and for an expansion team afterwards - which the owner will have to win over to have any hope of leaving behind a positive legacy.

So far, it hasn't happened. In fact, it isn't even close.

- BDMc

Barry McBride is publisher of The Orange and Brown Report, and began his own odd career trajectory by voicing his anger over the Browns move to Baltimore via the Internet in 1995. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of other individuals involved in production of The Orange and Brown Report.

Modell (WTAM): Click here
Lerner (ABJ): Click here
Lerner (PD): Click here
OBR Forums: http://mb.scout.com/bbrownsinsider


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