NFL bids Modell farewell at league meetings

PALM BEACH, Fla. – Decades after Art Modell began his self-described romance with the National Football League, the venerable Baltimore Ravens owner is officially handing over his football team to Steve Bisciotti.<br><br> The gridiron patriarch's impending exit was marked Monday at his final annual league meeting as a majority owner with salutes and standing ovations from his peers. <br>

Modell, 78, met the tribute at The Breakers by shedding a few tears, flashing a near-constant smile and engaging in his trademark bemusement at his own sense of humor.

"I've enjoyed a 43-year run, and it's been great for me and my family," said Modell, who bought the Cleveland Browns on March 22, 1961 at age 35 for $4 million. "I loved every second of it. I got a taste of it this morning from my fellow owners. I was very touched by the things that were said.

"This league has been a big part of my life. I started out as a young man. I grew up. The game grew up and I was able to make my contribution, I hope. This is the culmination. I will never lose my love for the game of football."

The transition from Modell to Bisciotti, a minority owner for the past four years, is nearly complete with the $625 million sale set to become official on April 8. 

A charter member of the NFL's old guard, Modell was awarded a proclamation by the league for his varied accomplishments in 43 seasons.

"Art is a legend of our game and one of life's unforgettable characters," NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said in his annual state of the league address. "Art, we deeply appreciate your leadership, your friendship and all the ways you contributed to the NFL. Your fingerprints are deeply embedded in the history of the league – the competition, collective bargaining and, of course, television.

"You consistently led strong franchises and won championships as a tough competitor, but you always kept the best interests of the league partnership at the forefront."

During Modell's ownership of the Cleveland Browns and Ravens, his teams won two world championships along with 28 winning seasons and 18 playoff appearances. He was the league's only elected president, chairing negotiations for the initial collective bargaining agreement.

Modell served on the NFL-AFL merger committee. He also chaired the league's influential television committee from 1962 to 1993, helping to launch Monday Night Football and NFL Films and negotiating the league's television contracts alongside Pete Rozelle.

Modell said his most noteworthy contribution was helping to institute revenue sharing, which eventually led to the modern NFL with its collective bargaining agreement and salary cap.

"I will fondly remember Art's presence and humor," Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney said. "When we would be bogged down, Art would get up and tell a joke or say something that broke the ice. He helped so many situations."

In a nod to Modell's penchant for humor, the proclamation recognized him as the NFL quipster-emeritus and chairman of the one-liner subcommittee.

As Tagliabue spoke, a video montage of Modell's career was shown that included images of Modell on a snowy sideline, with former Browns legends Jim Brown and Lou "The Toe" Groza, and a clip of Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis complimenting Modell.

"I did a lot of reflection when they showed the video and I got a lot of nice comments from other coaches and general managers saying, ‘This was a guy who dates back to Jim Brown,'" said Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome, a Hall of Fame tight end for Modell's Browns. "I think this gave everybody a true picture of what the NFL was all about and we've kind of gotten away from that.

"I think people appreciated that Art goes back to when the NFL was really pure and it was just football."

Modell hasn't been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and the primary stumbling block is the controversial move of the Browns to Maryland in 1996. An act that enraged the rabid Browns' fan base is part of his legacy, too.

Modell cited financial difficulties incurred by a stadium dispute with public officials in Cleveland as a reason behind the move. He disclosed Monday that his family would likely have had to declare bankruptcy if he hadn't moved the team.

"If I didn't move my team to Baltimore, my family would have gone into bankruptcy," Modell disclosed. "In the NFL if you declare bankruptcy, it's an automatic revocation of your license. You lose the ball club.

"I was lied to, pure and simple, by the powers that be in both the business community and political system. The business and political system failed the Browns and they failed me."
When asked why he didn't outline the extent of his financial problems during the time of the move, Modell said: "I didn't think it was right to start talking about private matters of that nature. I didn't feel it was appropriate for me talk about losing millions of dollars when the steelworkers were going broke in Youngstown.

"I wasn't helped by the media. They portrayed me as some buck-chasing guy filled with greed. There was a shocking caricature of me on the cover of Sports Illustrated chasing a buck. I was chasing survival."

Modell had to go to five banks before obtaining a loan to pay receiver Andre Rison's $5 million signing bonus. During the Ravens' inaugural season, the team couldn't afford a practice squad so coaches practiced alongside the players.

Ravens vice president of public and community relations Kevin Byrne, who has worked for Modell since 1981, said that Modell was greeted by New York Jets coach Herman Edwards after Tagliabue's address. Byrne said Edwards thanked Modell for his contributions to the league and its diversity.

"I think a lot of players nowadays don't know Mr. Modell and what he's done for the league," Edwards said. "I told him, ‘You'll be missed.'"

The proclamation called Modell an "exceptional friend, visionary leader and business partner with integrity, class and a deft sense of humor."

Bisciotti, 43, designed the transfer of the sale to allow Modell to bid farewell to his fellow owners as a full member.

Modell will retain a minor interest as a shareholder and will have an office next to Bisciotti in the team's new training complex that's set for completion in October. Modell and his wife, Pat, are about to move into a new home in Vero Beach, Fla.

Modell said his health has improved after heart attacks and a mild stroke.

He's also starting a company with his son, David, the outgoing Ravens' president who will be replaced by Richard Cass, with an office planned for the Inner Harbor. Byrne said the company is likely to have an interest in sports.

Modell said he will remain a fixture at practices and games and will stay as involved as Bisciotti wants him to be. 

"It's now Steve Bisciotti's team and he's entitled to all the help I can give him," Modell said. "Steve Bisciotti is going to be an outstanding owner. He's got a love for the game. 

"He's strong. He's going to be a good one. Trust me on that."

NOTES The Ravens received three compensatory draft selections in next month's draft, one sixth-round choice and two seventh-round picks. Baltimore picked up the 199th, 244th and 246th overall selections based on the draft-order formula. … Former Ravens tight end John Jones officially signed a two-year contract with the Miami Dolphins.

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

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