September 7, 2012

The Legacy of Art Modell

By - Keith Smith

Art Modell, one of the most influential and simultaneously loved and hated owners in the history of the NFL, passed away at his home early Thursday morning. He was 87.

The former owner of the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens died "peacefully," surrounded by his family, according to his son David.

Photo by: Mark Duncan
Though mainly remembered as the man who moved the Browns from Ohio to Maryland, Modell's fingerprints are actually all over the NFL, even to this day.

He chaired the Owner's Labor Committee in 1968, and successfully negotiated the very first players' Collective Bargaining Agreement. He served on the NFL-AFL Merger Committee, and helped ease the realignment of the two leagues by moving his Browns to the AFC. He and then Commissioner Pete Rozelle worked to establish NFL Films, and Modell served as its first chairman. He was the only NFL president ever elected, serving from 1967 to 1969. In 1970, he helped negotiate with ABC the launch of "Monday Night Football," hosting the first game in Cleveland. He owned teams during five decades, from 1961 to 2003. His teams had winning records in 24 of 43 seasons, making the playoffs 18 times, and winning 2 NFL championships, one of those a Super Bowl.

To say he was a guiding force in the success of the NFL would be a huge understatement.

Yet in one fell swoop, he became one of the most hated men (in Cleveland, for moving the Browns to Baltimore in 1996) and one of the most beloved (in Baltimore, for bringing a team back to the city after the Colts bolted for Indy in 1984) in the league.

Even Modell himself once said that he felt he "tarnished" his great legacy in the NFL somewhat when he moved the team to Cleveland, and many believe it's what's kept him out of the Hall of Fame, despite being a finalist once and a semifinalist seven times.

Out of fairness, he was basically painted into a corner by the city officials who were unwilling to work with him in building the type of infrastructure the team needed to be successful.

Modell was kind enough to leave the Browns name, colors, and franchise records in Cleveland for the expansion team that stepped in a few short years later, helping the once proud football power city maintain its identity.

"I think that part of my legacy is I left the colors, the name and the records in Cleveland," Modell once said. "The fans in Cleveland were loyal and supportive. They lived and died with me every Sunday for 35 years."

That was very unlike the way Robert Irsay left the city of Baltimore years earlier.

He backed a truck up to the door in the dead of night, skulking away with everything marked "Property of the Baltimore Colts." His disgusting display paved the way for Modell to be revered as a hero when he brought his team to Baltimore, and he was beloved there, much like he was most of his life in Cleveland.

I don't know how Cleveland feels about Modell now, after so much time has passed, and a new Browns team influences the city. I hope they have found it in their hearts to forgive him for leaving.

The ironic thing is that he lost millions after the move to Baltimore, to the point that he finally had to sell the team because it became such a financial burden to him, much more so than the Browns were.

The expansion Browns haven't found the success of Modell's teams of the 1960s, where Jim Brown ran free and carried the team to the 1964 NFL championship.

But Modell's decision to leave did prompt city officials to do the right thing with its new franchise and build the new multi-million dollar stadium that Modell had wanted for so long. So in many ways, his legacy lives on, in both cities, and truly in every city where the NFL plays today.

Yes, his fingerprints are still all over the league -- and will be for years to come.


  1. It's a travesty that this man isn't in the Hall of Fame. The fact that he moved the Browns out of Cleveland is irrelevant in the grand scheme of what he did for the league. RIP Art.

  2. Modell kinda got a raw deal from the fans, similar to what Walter O'Malley got when he moved the Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles back in the day. If the city you're in pretty much refuses to build you a new stadium, what else are you supposed to do? I'd take my team and leave too.