This week, the Oakland Raiders continue to mourn the passing of their infamous owner Al Davis. While many things can be said about Davis (both good and bad), you have to admit that he has become a household name. Even non-sports fans recognize the name. His legendary antics have made fodder for the media and his contributions to what we now call the NFL are irrefutable.
We also got the news yesterday that Pat Modell, wife of Art Modell, passed away. From all accounts, she was a wonderful person and will be missed by her family and friends. Having lost my mom to cancer in 2007, I know how her children feel. My father now lives with us and his grief at Mom’s passing is felt daily. I send out my sympathies to the Modell family and their children during this difficult time.
But amongst all of the retrospectives this week, a question is being raised here in Cleveland: “When Art Modell passes away, what will his legacy be?” Art Modell lays claim to creating many of the things that NFL football fans love today and can’t live without. Let’s take a quick look at a few of them:
1968 – Chairman of the Owners Labor Committee: This committee negotiated and signed the very first NFL players’ collective bargaining agreement.
1970 – NFL-AFL Merger Committee: Agreed to move the Cleveland Browns to the weaker AFC division in the newly merged NFL.
1970 – Monday Night Football: Modell was a negotiator in the MNF deal with ABC. However, the reality is that Pete Rozelle got that deal done by strong-arming ABC into buying the rights to broadcast the games. There were sold-out games and millions of families tuning in to watch teams play, even if it wasn’t their “home team.”
1995 – Moved the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore. Well, sort of. He walked away from city of Cleveland, left the Browns’ name and history here, and took his players/coaches to Baltimore to form the Ravens. While he is not the first owner to relocate a team, and probably not the last, his moving of the team seems to still be regarded as the worst thing to happen in the NFL in its entire history.
As a Browns fan, I’ve tried to look back at what happened and see things from Modell’s side. I’ve tried to understand what drove him to make the decisions that he did. To this day, I simply cannot. His move was so different from any other move the NFL has seen. His being the landlord of the stadium where they played, his secret meetings with local government to try and get a new stadium, his clear ignorance of the power held by Browns fans to put pressure on those officials to give him what he wanted – those things single him out against other owners who have moved teams.
The talk will also start again soon about inducting Modell into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton. Do I think he should get in? When I look at the other owners already there, does he deserve to be included? Yeah, probably. Most likely. It’s hard to deny. However, I think this may be one of those cases where he needs to go in posthumously. I cannot envision a time where it would be safe for anyone in Canton to have him be there in person for the ceremony.
It is true that Al Davis moved the Raiders out of Oakland. And back again. But I never felt the heartbreak of their fans the way my fellow Browns fans and I felt it here. I should be able to be a “bigger person” and move on from this but I simply cannot. I cannot forgive and forget. I cannot bear to watch him walk on the stage at the Hal of Fame ceremonies. And I am not alone.
As Browns fans, we are left with some simple facts:
- Conversations about our football team must be prefaced with either “before 1995” or “after 1998”
- Those years without football did damage to our love of the game and the city ofCleveland.
- Our children grew up in a different type of sports environment than we did; they are cynical and not as attached to this team as we were to the old Browns.
And with all of this in mind, I fear that Art Modell’s real legacy will be moving the Cleveland Browns. That all other achievements will be overlooked or eventually forgotten. That the heartbreak we endured as fans will never really heal. And even though people joke now about throwing a parade and celebrating when he passes away, I fear that I will simply relive the pain caused by losing my team, mourning the innocence that I lost when faced with the reality that my team was never really “mine.”