Blame game is one Modell can't win

November 08, 1995|By Ken Rosenthal

So now the blame game begins. Browns owner Art Modell yesterday accused Ohio government officials and business leaders of back-stabbing him. Cleveland Mayor Michael White responded by calling him a liar.

Who's right?

Who knows?

Who cares?

Modell, speaking to reporters at NFL owners meetings near Dallas, gave an eloquent, heartfelt, powerful account of the events that persuaded him to move to Baltimore.

And White, appearing at not one but two news conferences, charged that Modell engaged in a "charade" to sabotage yesterday's county tax referendum designed to raise $175 million to renovate Cleveland Stadium.

The bottom line is, the Browns belong in Cleveland.

Modell is, and always will be, the heavy. But clearly, he isn't 100 percent to blame.

Government officials played a role, just as they did when the Colts left Baltimore in 1984, forcing Robert Irsay's hand by trying to seize control of the team through eminent domain.

Indeed, government officials were so eager to build new homes for the baseball Indians and NBA Cavaliers, they snubbed the owner with the longest and deepest commitment to the city.

Modell bought the Browns in 1961, then took over Cleveland Stadium in 1974 -- at the urging, he said, of three civic leaders who wanted him to remain downtown rather than move to a suburb.

Cleveland Stadium was the biggest dump in sports even then, "in a total and complete state of disrepair -- unsafe, unclean and fraught with scandal," Modell said.

Modell became the landlord, signing the Indians to a 10-yealease when it appeared they might move to New Orleans and committing the Browns to Cleveland until -- ahem -- 1998.

Since then, Modell said he has spent $66 million on stadium renttaxes and repairs. Yet when city, county and business leaders went into partnership to construct Jacobs Field and Gund Arena, he got shut out.

Modell said yesterday that in 1989, Gov. George Voinovich -- then mayor of Cleveland -- floated the idea of a $75 million grant to improve Cleveland Stadium for the Browns and Indians.

"I didn't realize what was going on behind my back," Modell said.

Why didn't he?

Why did he remain silent?

And why did he lose $21 million the past two years playing to crowds of approximately 70,000 in a league with a salary cap?

These are all valid questions.

Modell knew Indians owner Dick Jacobs wanted to play in a baseball-only facility. And he knew the Cavaliers were returning to town.

"I could very easily have done what I should have done -- said, 'OK, this is great. What do you got in mind for the Cleveland Browns?' " Modell said.

Instead, he became a martyr.

Modell said city and state officials committed more than $500 million to build Jacobs Field, Gund Arena, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and a science center.

Where was his political savvy?

He should have fought for his fair share.

It's unfortunate, but government and business leaders respond to threats. Modell deserved to be rewarded for his years of service. But predictably, he was taken for granted.

Perhaps he was content to wait, knowing he'd continue receiving his slice of the NFL revenue-sharing pie. But then came free agency and a major revision in the salary structure.

"The whole landscape changed -- remarkably," Modell said.

Alas, he was stuck at the Mistake by the Lake.

Modell said he didn't want to be known as an "extortionist," so he continued playing the good son of Cleveland, even contributing $10,000 to the campaign for the sin tax that financed Jacobs Field and Gund Arena.

Where was his PR savvy?

He had a legitimate argument; he should have screamed.

Now, he's getting called a traitor, and worse.

Modell denied a "Monday Night Football" report that he's $50 million in debt. A column in today's Akron Beacon Journal quotes a source as saying the figure is $28 million.

Whatever, Modell confirmed only his losses of $21 million the past two seasons, and millions more before that.

No question, he needed revenue from club seating and luxury boxes. But ask the baseball owners -- a salary cap, combined with revenue sharing, is supposed to protect such owners.

Now, it turns out that Modell didn't even want the renovations to Cleveland Stadium -- he produced a copy of a letter he sent White and Voinovich, urging them not to mislead the public by promoting the referendum as a vote to keep the Browns.

What did he want?

A new stadium.

Did he ever say that?

It's unclear.

White produced his own letters and documents yesterday, and last week claimed that the deal offered Modell could have put the Browns in the top third of the league in revenue.

No one will ever know the truth; it's subjective, anyway. But Modell, unlike Irsay, obviously is struggling with his conscience.

"I appear before you with a very, very heavy heart, a profound sense of remorse, almost despondency," he said yesterday.

What's the difference between his move, Irsay's and Al Davis'?

"They had no justification, period," Modell said.

The bottom line is, the Browns belong in Cleveland.

If Modell was wronged, the city was wronged worse.

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