WASHINGTON – As celebrated as Art Modell was in Baltimore, he was vilified in Cleveland. The former Ravens’ owner died Thursday at the age of 87 and leaves behind a legacy in the NFL rich in both influence and controversy.
Modell was a hero to Baltimore football fans when he moved the Browns to a city jilted by the Colts and owner Bob Irsay in 1983. After trying for years to get a stadium deal in Cleveland, Modell made the difficult and controversial decision to leave behind one of the NFL’s most passionate fan bases and establish the Ravens in 1996.
Suddenly, Modell was linked with Irsay. It seemed as if Modell had done what Irsay did when he took the Colts out of Baltimore. It was Colts’ fans with their passion and support in the 1950s and ’60s that helped the NFL, then a distant second to Major League Baseball in popularity, improve its position on the American sporting landscape.
Modell was not Irsay. When Modell left Cleveland, he also left behind the Browns’ name and history. Cleveland was later awarded a new franchise that inherited the Browns’ history. When Irsay moved the Colts to Indianapolis in 1983, he took with him the team’s name and history. Hall-of-Fame quarterback Johnny Unitas is in the Indianapolis Colts’ record books.
Irsay moved the Colts on a snowy night and under cover of darkness. Modell’s move of the Browns was completed in broad daylight and only after it was clear there did not seem to be any real options for a new stadium Cleveland. Modell also had waited patiently while the city of Cleveland delivered a new stadium for baseball’s Indians and basketball’s Cavaliers.
Modell’s decision to move the Browns to Baltimore probably cost him a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Still it should be noted that Modell was instrumental in helping the NFL gain more of a presence on television in the 1960s. He also was the driving force behind the 1970 contract between the NFL and ABC to televise games on Monday night.
As president of the NFL from 1967 to 1969, Modell helped negotiate the league’s first collective bargaining agreement with its players. In short, Modell was one of the key architects behind the modern NFL that is now this country’s most popular professional sport.
As a owner Modell won a title in Cleveland in 1964 and in Baltimore in 2000. In both cities Modell was active in charitable causes. The difference in Cleveland and Baltimore is in how Modell will be remembered.