Accusations fly at Modell over move from Cleveland 'We have been lied to,' mayor says at NFL meetings

November 08, 1995|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

GRAPEVINE, Texas -- The testy relationship between Cleveland and its nearly ex-football team worsened yesterday, with team and city officials accusing each other of lies, favoritism and duplicity.

In dueling news conferences, Cleveland Mayor Michael R. White, then Browns owner Art Modell and then Mr. White again charged one another with everything except pass interference.

"We have been wronged. We have been lied to," Mr. White told reporters gathered in this Dallas suburb for NFL owners meetings.

Mr. White and Mr. Modell augmented their arguments by handing out copies of correspondence, several marked "confidential," that went back and forth between the owner, city and state over the past few months.

"He and his representatives were out trying to move the team while we were trying to raise $175 million," said Mr. White, accusing Mr. Modell of "sabotaging" yesterday's county tax referendum designed to raise money to renovate Cleveland Stadium.

"This has all been a put-up and a charade designed to ensure that his deceptive negotiations on the runway would go forward," Mr. White said, referring to an Oct. 27 airport meeting in which the team and Baltimore signed a contract.

Mr. Modell had a different slant of what has gone on since 1974, when he took steps to improve Cleveland Stadium and keep baseball's Indians from moving to New Orleans. Since then, he has spent $66 million on the facility in rent, taxes and repairs, he said.

City and state officials encouraged him to fix up the stadium, but then committed more than $500 million to a new baseball park, an arena for the NBA's Cavaliers, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and a science center, he said.

"I didn't realize what was going on behind my back. The city and Indians reached a pact on a new stadium while I was still playing around with the renovations," Mr. Modell said.

But he agreed not to oppose the plan for the baseball and basketball facilities with the understanding that his team would be next in line, he said.

"For six years, I have been waiting for something to happen. To no avail," Mr. Modell said. "I'm out of options."

Saddled with debt and increasingly falling behind other teams in revenues and player payrolls, he said, he had to take action. He preferred quiet negotiations with Baltimore to placing demands on Cleveland that could be misconstrued as extortion.

Besides, he said, "I think the city is broke. It was broke in 1974. It's worse off now."

The city's plans, which call for a $175 million upgrade funded by the city, state, county and private businesses, were inadequate and imprecise, Mr. Modell said. And he'd been told a new stadium was impossible.

"There is nothing out there. To fix up some lavatories won't do it anymore," he said.

However, if the city gets a stadium plan together, Mr. Modell vowed to "lead the drive" to get the NFL back to Cleveland.

Mr. Modell laid out the same grievances in an executive session of team owners yesterday morning, building his case for a move.

Several participants described the conversation that followed as spirited and emotional, especially an argument against the move by Washington Redskins executive vice president John Kent Cooke.

Mr. Cooke, the son of team owner Jack Kent Cooke, made a passionate appeal for the tradition of Cleveland as a "foundation of the league," one source said.

Mr. Cooke, however, did not speak against a team's moving to Baltimore. Mr. Modell said he has not spoken with the Redskins owner, but joked that the club is not "leading a season ticket drive for me in Baltimore."

Several owners and NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue expressed sympathy for the plight of the Browns and said they would keep an open mind on the move.

"I have to be honest with you. We think a lot of Art Modell, and I think his heart and head was really committed to Cleveland," said San Francisco 49ers president Carmen Policy.

Stopping the move would be impossible under current laws, he said.

Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt said he was concerned about instability and leaving a market where fans consistently have supported the team.

"I think we need to evaluate the things that make the league successful," Mr. Hunt said. But he said he had not made up his mind how to vote on the move.

Mr. Tagliabue said that unforeseen consequences of the league's labor contract with players have put pressure on teams to improve their stadiums or move.

"The rules are flexible enough to allow us to look at current economics," Mr. Tagliabue said.

Under Mr. Modell's agreement with the Maryland Stadium Authority, he must submit a relocation request to the NFL by next Wednesday. Cleveland will be allowed to make its case and then the issue will be voted on at a meeting tentatively set for Jan. 16 or 17. League bylaws require the support of 23 of the 30 owners.

Returning to Cleveland is out of the question, Mr. Modell said.

"I think the bridge is down, burned, disappeared. There's not even a canoe for me there."

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