Modell must reap whirlwind he didn't know he was sowing

November 19, 1995|By JOHN STEADMAN

It's a traumatic time for Art Modell, who in one swift and drastic action touched off an avalanche of criticism that isn't exactly going to subside with the changing of the tides in Chesapeake Bay.

Suddenly, all his contributions to the NFL have been diminished by the single overwhelming action of removing the Cleveland Browns from their profitable home of a half-century.

History can be painful. It assesses its own penalty. Modell will be remembered as the man who took the Browns away, a legacy that is going to trouble him and the league he has been associated with since 1961. Once he was among the leading citizens of Cleveland; now he's described as a public enemy.

It's an unfortunate turn of events, proving how acclaim can turn ++ to resentment in the flash of moving a franchise, otherwise thought of as a civic trust, even if it is a personal vehicle for profit.

Modell is wise, sensitive and perceptive, certainly no rockhead. But he didn't believe, in the worst scenario, that leaving with the Browns under his arm would translate into such a bitter experience. A spectator held up a sign in Green Bay, an NFL cornerstone, that said something about the weather there not being as cold as Art's heart.

Too bad. But Modell can't lateral the responsibility to someone else. He made the call. By taking the Browns out of Cleveland, he besmirched the tradition of a historic franchise and is suffering the consequence.

Baltimore is the beneficiary of his Cleveland withdrawal, but not before agreeing to build and provide a $200 million stadium that will be rent-free for Modell over the next 30 years.

What does Modell do at this point? He wouldn't be human if he isn't troubled by the barrage of insults exploding around him. Cleveland, where he has been a resident for 35 years, is in such an anti-Modell mode he will have to move elsewhere. He's currently in exile in Florida, with occasional visits to Baltimore.

If Modell is at all concerned over what's being said and desires to regain a semblance of respect in Cleveland, he would have to alter his moving plans. Three options seemingly would be open:

* Put a price on the team and sell it outright to Cleveland interests, which would take the sting out of what has occurred. Cleveland, without a doubt, deserves such consideration from Modell.

* Let his friend Al Lerner buy the Browns for Cleveland or else suggest that Lerner run an expansion franchise in Baltimore.

* If he goes in either of those directions in alleviating the Cleveland situation -- one that he precipitated -- then he would likely have the choice of putting an expansion club in Baltimore or Los Angeles. That would offer a fresh start.

NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said expansion isn't in the offing. However, he's going to have to back off the status quo because of the emergency now confronting the league. His own status and preservation as commissioner depend on how he resolves a crisis that is damaging the NFL.

Most of the beating Modell is taking comes from the belief he never gave Cleveland a fair chance to bid for the Browns. Modell insists otherwise, but the perception is the Browns never would have left if the community had been openly notified before he signed a deal in Baltimore. All this came about behind Cleveland's back, when it never gave thought its franchise was endangered since it was averaging crowds of 70,000.

What has transpired for the NFL is the worst public relations disaster in its 76-year history. Two betting scandals in the past, involving players, gave it a jolt, but nothing equates to the fury caused by Modell's revelation in midseason that the Browns were leaving Cleveland.

If Modell prefers to stay in Baltimore and Don Shula is fired in

Miami, it would set up the possibility of Shula's return to where he started his coaching career. Just a thought. Meanwhile, Modell is being vilified. Major sponsors are pulling out of broadcasts because of what happened and the team mascot, known as Rover Cleveland, is quoted as saying he can't continue to work for Modell.

It's not just Modell taking the hit, but the league, too. Mary Jeanne Wilson, of Eastlake, Ohio, wrote a letter to Tagliabue, with copies to newspapers, radio and TV stations and the networks, that said, in part:

" . . . Fans are now being asked to tax themselves to build the stadiums and provide them to team owners rent-free, pay the owner's moving expenses and then pay for their seats twice (personal seat license). . . . It seems as if NFL owners and players no longer feel obligated to pretend they want to entertain us. And it hurts to know they no longer care if we know they don't care."

Modell's happiness at making a "great deal" for himself in Baltimore, at the expense of Cleveland, has been chilled by a torrent of adverse reaction that shows little sign of subsiding.

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