Sports with Shook: Reflect on Modell’s passing with honesty — forget the venom



Baltimore Ravens owner Art Modell is escorted onto the field by linebacker Ray Lewis (52) before the Ravens faced San Diego Sunday, December 10, 2000. Modell was honored by his team for his 40-year association with the NFL. Photo by George Bridge

Nick Shook

Art Modell died on Thursday.

This much is true.

The former owner of the Cleveland Browns, and later, the Baltimore Ravens, passed away due to natural causes at age 87. A column about this was sure to come from me because I’m a diehard Browns fan and because my opinion will surprise you.

I was born in 1992. Modell moved the Browns to Baltimore in 1995.

I missed the glorious playoff runs and heartbreaking defeats in the AFC Championship to John Elway (a curse word in my household) and the Denver Broncos in 1986 and 1987. I missed the double-overtime playoff victory over the New York Jets.

All I had were stories from my father, about how he left the game and then scrambled to get back in and ended up in the newspaper the next day. And, of course, the story which I will never forget; my dad tells me how he was sitting in a corner of old Cleveland Municipal Stadium on Jan. 11, 1987, when the Browns led the Broncos 20-13 with five minutes left in the fourth quarter, and my dad turned to whomever he was with at the game and said “We’re five minutes away from the Super Bowl.”

Oh, those fateful words.

I was born and raised as a Browns fan, but as a budding 5-year-old, it was difficult to develop a passion for a team that didn’t exist, especially while watching 30 other teams battle for NFL supremacy. The “Countdown to ’99,” and the return of the Browns, inched ever closer as the days passed.

My father purchased season tickets for the 1999 season as soon as they became available, and even had our name placed on a commemorative display inside the stadium, which is still there today. “Shooks in Brownstown,” it reads. I was lucky enough to attend the first-ever game at the brand new Cleveland Browns Stadium in August 1999, as the Browns hosted the Minnesota Vikings.

I had been well-educated at this point on Modell and the devil that he was in Cleveland. Even after the team returned, chants of “Art Modell can go to hell” continued. Honestly, that might have been the first chant I ever knew.

Since then, I have seen close to 80 Browns games in the same seat: section 149, row three, seat one.

But it didn’t have to be that way, for me, and for the thousands upon thousands of Browns fans worldwide who have suffered for more than a decade, and who have supported a team that consistently puts a terrible product on the field. Yes, the Browns got a new stadium, but the new team hasn’t done anything but fire four coaches in 11 years and has reached the playoffs one time since 1999. The team just hasn’t been the same since it moved.

You might read this and think, especially since he has now passed, that such chants and feelings were highly unwarranted. But Modell not only stole Cleveland’s pride and joy in the Browns, but also lied to them repeatedly before pulling the carpet from beneath them.

When I was around 12 or 13 years old, my father handed me a book and said simply, “Read this.” Fumble: The Browns, Modell and the Move, it was called, written by Michael G. Poplar, a former employee under Modell at the Cleveland Stadium Corporation. I read it cover to cover, learning about the multiple bad business decisions Modell had made over the years, which caused him to go bankrupt and ultimately move the team. “I had no other choice,” Modell told the media.

While the city built both the Cavaliers and Indians brand-new palaces in the Gateway Plaza in 1994, Modell was irked. He and Mayor Mike White didn’t get along. Oil and water, as ESPN 850-WKNR’s Tony Rizzo described it on air Thursday morning.

In a 1994 edition of the Browns News Illustrated, Modell answered a question about the possibilities of him moving the team if he did not receive a renovated or new stadium.

“I wouldn’t consider moving the team,” Modell was quoted as saying. “Newspapers have been making more out of that than they should. I do, however, believe Cleveland Browns fans deserve equal treatment as the Indians and Cavs fans. I am not asking for a new stadium. I’m just asking for help to refurbish, in a major way, the current stadium. If I don’t get a new stadium or a refurbished stadium by the end of the contract, I’m not going to move the team. But I will sell the team to someone who might move it.”

Less than a year later, he was on a tarmac in Baltimore, arriving to the cheers of soon-to-be Ravens fans.

Before writing this column, I consulted the works of respected northeast Ohio journalists Marla Ridenour of the Akron Beacon Journal and Leon Bibb and Andy Baskin of WEWS-TV Channel 5 in Cleveland.

Each of their articles echoed the same sentiment; Marla’s was heartfelt and honest, having the closest relationship with Modell in over 30 years covering the Browns; Bibb’s was reminiscent of the phone interview he did with Modell after word of the move leaked, and Baskin’s was a lesson for everyone developing an opinion and expressing such on the day of Modell’s passing — have respect for the man and his family, no matter how much you despise him for his past actions.

I coincidentally wore a Browns t-shirt and an orange and brown fitted hat to class Thursday. People asked me if I was wearing the clothes to celebrate his death.

No matter the past, I do not see fit to celebrate the passing of anyone. Bottles should not be popped over the death of Modell, as if he were some tyrannical dictator of a foreign country. He was an NFL owner that got in too deep, bailed himself out by moving the team, and ultimately made the same mistakes again in Baltimore, albeit after winning a Super Bowl in 2000. Modell sold the Ravens to minority owner Steve Bisciotti in 2003.

I am not one of those who believes that, because Modell helped the NFL explode into a multi-billion-dollar industry by helping create Monday Night Football, he belongs in the Hall of Fame.

Yes, Modell did negotiate the league’s first lucrative television contracts as well as the revenue sharing deal among all NFL teams. Yes, his team did win the city’s last championship in 1964.

But he was also the same man who blacked out the 1964 NFL Championship game on local television in order to drive more fans to attend the game. He was also the same man who fired legendary coach Paul Brown, a man who won seven league championships as leader of the Browns, a team once known as the “Greatest Show in Football.”

Don’t forget he also borrowed money to sign wide receiver Andre Rison in 1995 because he was too deep in debt. He was also the same man who moved the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore.

I guess I can thank Modell for moving the team, so that my family would end up with the great seats, to watch one of the league’s worst franchises year after year. Thank you, Art Modell, for ripping the original Cleveland Browns from the city of Cleveland and taking them to Baltimore and for depriving me of a decent football team for most of my life.

Thank you to the city of Cleveland for fighting to retain the colors and history of the Browns, so that they would return with the same look and storied past in 1999, and the tradition of the Cleveland Browns could continue for my generation and generations to come.

As I leafed through Fumble while writing this column, I came across a quote from Modell at the end of an interview in 1994 where he was asked how he would like to be remembered.

“As the nicest 102-year-old man in Cleveland,” he said.

Not exactly.

Contact Nick Shook at [email protected].