It's time for Cleveland and Browns to work it out

January 03, 1996|By KEN ROSENTHAL

If they're not talking, they should be talking. And if they're not talking, they will be soon.

Art Modell, shake hands with Cleveland Mayor Michael R. White.

Mayor White, shake hands with Art Modell.

John Moag, head of the Maryland Stadium Authority, said yesterday that he expects the Browns owner and city of Cleveland to begin exploring an out-of-court settlement shortly.

Indeed, a settlement makes so much sense, the question probably is not if it will happen, but when.

Maybe before Jan. 17, the date NFL owners could vote on the Browns' move. Certainly before Feb. 12, the scheduled trial date in Cleveland.

White keeps saying: "We want our team. We want our name. We want our colors."

Bet he'd settle for two out of three and a new team.

Modell could give Cleveland the name, the colors and the vow that he'd support the city's attempt to return to the NFL. In exchange, Cleveland would drop its litigation against the team.

Baltimore would get the Browns in time for the 1996 season.

And Cleveland could go about stealing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or some other team.

This isn't Prince Charles and Princess Di; it's dirty NFL business.

Art, make up with Mike.

Mike, make up with Art.

White and a delegation of Cleveland officials will be in Atlanta tomorrow to meet with the NFL stadium and finance committees and present the city's plan to renovate Cleveland Stadium.

Frederick R. Nance, White's chief counsel on Browns issues, told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that the modifications are aimed at keeping the Browns, not at luring another team.

But in response to a question about including club seating that Modell didn't want: "Our discussions are with the NFL. They're not with Art Modell."

Read between the lines.

It's time to play ball.

"Very honestly, I think the odds are 99.5 percent they're going to be here," Moag said. "We're in a very emotional stage right now. But the season is over. People are not going to games anymore.

"Everyone is starting to focus differently than they did in the weeks following the announcement. Mayor White's objective, I don't think, is to strike back at Art Modell -- it's to get a new team.

"I think we'll see Cleveland starting to move differently. . . . I think we'll be moving into a settlement mode pretty quickly."

Nancy Lesic, a spokeswoman for White, said there has been no discussion of a settlement.

"Our objective has not changed -- we want our team, our name and our colors," Lesic said. "This is another example of Moag trying to regain his position in Baltimore because of the problems with the deal.

"We believe he's running scared. It seems to me he's getting extremely jumpy about a trial."

Still, White must realize that Cleveland has little to gain even if it wins the lawsuit. Modell isn't going to sell. He says he will strip down the team if he is forced to stay two more years. And, no matter what the courts decide, he'll be free to move when his lease expires in 1998.

"It's a ludicrous proposition for the team, the fans of Cleveland, the politicians -- a no-win situation for everybody," Moag said. "It's so illogical, totally nonsensical. Nothing like that has ever happened in sports. I can't imagine it."

He also doesn't want to imagine it, because if somehow the Browns don't come, then Moag will look awfully stupid for cutting such a risky deal when it would have been safer to steal the Buccaneers or Cardinals.

Right now, that doesn't appear to be a serious concern. Modell signed a 30-year lease to play in Baltimore. And if the NFL owners vote down the move, the Browns and stadium authority will sue.

White is in a far more precarious position.

He risks antagonizing the NFL if he proceeds with a lawsuit that could result in a team's operating in Baltimore and playing in Cleveland for two seasons -- more embarrassment for the league.

"I also think the mayor doesn't want to go through a trial," Moag said. "It's not going to be a pretty thing for the mayor. Remember, you've only heard one side of the story. The other side is pretty ugly for the mayor."

White's response?

Lesic paraphrased him as saying, "John Moag had better be downright prepared to back up the things he says."

Whatever, a settlement is still in everyone's best interests -- and the sooner it happens, the better.

If it occurred before the NFL owners meeting in Atlanta, the vote would be a slam dunk for Modell, enabling the stadium authority to begin groundbreaking on the Browns' new stadium.

Leading state legislators are squawking about the Browns' and Redskins' deals, but would they dare interfere if Modell gained NFL approval and worked out an agreement with Cleveland?

And if the NFL owners rejected the move or delayed their vote? A settlement could persuade them to change their minds, just as they did when the Rams moved to St. Louis.

White would be a hero -- he not only would be the first mayor to replace a lost team so quickly, but also the first to retain its name and colors.

Mike, play with Art.

Art, play with Mike.

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