Owners hear Modell's side of Browns' moving story Case is 'compelling'

Cleveland continues its protest campaign

January 17, 1996|By Vito Stellino and Jon Morgan | Vito Stellino and Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell presented his case before NFL owners yesterday, and Cleveland Mayor Michael White continued to battle in the court of public opinion.

Mr. White continued his very public campaign to convince NFL owners that they should block Mr. Modell's proposed move of the Browns to Baltimore, and Mr. Modell launched his behind-the-scenes battle to persuade them to approve the move by meeting with members of two committees last night.

Although they stopped short of endorsing the Browns' move, several owners complimented Mr. Modell's presentation.

New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft, who had been critical of the move, described the presentation as "very compelling."

"It was clear tonight that the Cleveland political people didn't do their part before it came to this," Mr. Kraft said.

"I feel bad for the man [Mr. Modell]. I wish it never came to the breach point. It was quite a compelling story that he told tonight," said Mr. Kraft. "The Cleveland fan base shouldn't be abused."

New York Giants co-owner Bob Tisch said that the Browns "made a very good presentation, as did Cleveland. It's going to be a tough decision."

Earlier, Mr. White orchestrated several high-profile events, including the presentation of 2.2 million signatures on petitions to the league. The mayor also led a vigil with fans outside the owners' hotel.

The one thing neither Mr. White nor Mr. Modell is likely to get at the meetings is a resolution of the matter.

Though Mr. Modell is getting the first and last word at the meetings and is pressing for an immediate vote, the owners seem likely to wait until another meeting to call the roll on the issue.

Joe Browne, a league spokesman, said it was "highly unlikely" that there would be a vote at this meeting.

"This move is not in a vacuum. There is the possibility of a ripple effect, such as who moves to Cleveland if the Browns move to Baltimore."

Although Mr. Tisch suggested that the owners may not vote until their annual meetings in March, there were indications the owners might convene in early February to vote on the matter.

Mr. Modell has said that he would sue the league if the move is rejected.

When asked why owners wouldn't vote, Mr. Tisch said: "We're not ready for it."

Mr. Tisch said Commissioner Paul Tagliabue has to make a recommendation before a vote, and that is unlikely to happen at this meeting either, even though the owners may stay tomorrow to continue discussions.

Legal issues also factor into the possible delay. For instance, in a case scheduled to go to trial Feb. 12, Cleveland is attempting to force the Browns to stay put for the final three years of their lease at Cleveland Stadium.

During the Browns' presentation, Mr. Modell left most of the talking to his attorney, Robert C. Weber, but the owner added an emotional plea for a quick vote, according to several owners.

Mr. Tisch said: "He'd like to get his life set. He has children and grandchildren who are involved, and he wants to get on with his life."

Reached after the meeting, Mr. Modell said he was pleased with the presentation, but declined to predict the outcome.

"It's hard for me to read. They were all very attentive," he said.

Mr. Modell will sit in on Mr. White's presentation to all the owners today, but Mr. White will not be allowed in the meeting when Mr. Modell makes another presentation. Mr. Modell's presentation lasted slightly longer than two hours last night and was an abbreviated version of the one he'll give to all the owners today.

Mr. Modell added a light touch at times, Mr. Tisch said.

"Art always has to make a few jokes -- that's Art," Mr. Tisch said. "One or two, but not as many as he usually makes. He was very serious about this."

Thirteen owners were at the presentation. Two executives on the committees, Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney and Carmen Policy, president of the San Francisco 49ers, were not present.

Yesterday, Mr. White remained very visible and virtually asked members of the media for support.

"I know the media is supposed to remain very detached, and I respect that," Mr. White said. "But I hope you would see by this rally that these are not just ordinary fans of the NFL. These are people who through generations have grown up with this team, believe in this team and want this team to stay in Cleveland. It's a part of their life, a part of their home, a part of their community."

Mr. White brought four bus-loads of fans from Cleveland on a 15-hour trip, including the Big Dawg, John Thompson.

At a rally where the Browns fans were staying, the Big Dawg -- a large man who sports a Browns jersey and other Dawg Pound paraphernalia at Cleveland home games -- choked up as he talked about his memories of the team.

Later, the Cleveland contingent lined the hotel floor with the petitions and rolled a cart with the rest of them through the lobby before presenting them to a league executive, Harold Henderson.

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