Cleveland fans fly their colors Mayor leads show of support to NFL

Modell meets owners

January 17, 1996|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

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

Mr. White continued his very public campaign to convince NFL owners to block Mr. Modell's proposed move of the Browns to Baltimore while Mr. Modell launched his behind-the-scenes battle to persuade the owners to approve the move.

Mr. White orchestrated several high-profile events, including the presentation of 2.2 million signatures on petitions to the league at the NFL owners meetings, while Mr. Modell did not make a public appearance before making a presentation to two committees.

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

Even 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's "highly unlikely" there'll be a vote at this meeting.

The question is when the vote will take place.

Although Bob Tisch, co-owner of the New York Giants, suggested the owners may not vote on the issue 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. It is uncertain what he would do if the vote were delayed.

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 the owners vote, and that is unlikely to happen at this meeting either, even though the owners may stay here tomorrow to continue discussions.

When Mr. White was asked about the likely delay, he said: "I think one of the hallmarks of this campaign has been our willingness to be flexible. We've said all along that it wasn't critical to have a vote. What we think is critical is to have a resolution of what has gone on here.

"That resolution could come tomorrow, but I want to say if it takes a few extra days, we're willing to be flexible. We're willing to work with the NFL and to reassure them that the best plans in the world for the NFL are in Cleveland."

Mr. Modell, meanwhile, was trying to convince the owners that the best place for the Browns' future is in Baltimore.

Mr. Modell arrived at the owners meetings with his son, David, team executive Jim Bailey and two lawyers through a back door to avoid the reporters and television cameras massed in front of the meeting room.

Mr. Modell entered the meeting room at 8:20 p.m. to start his presentation before the stadium and finance committees. The presentation, to be followed by a question-and-answer session, was over by 10:30.

Mr. Modell is noted as a good speaker and was hoping that he could make a compelling presentation. He has said that he thinks he'll find a sympathetic audience among the owners he's known for years.

Mr. Tisch said he hasn't taken a stand on the matter, but said: "From the standpoint of the owners, Art Modell is a fine man. He's been a pillar of the league. He and Well Mara [Giants co-owner] and Dan Rooney [Pittsburgh Steelers owner] are the pillars of the league. They've been the most active in trying to get accomplishments for the league. It's very difficult for a man who's spent 35 years and has been so active to go through this."

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

Mr. Modell will make a presentation to all the owners today after Mr. White, who met with the two committees earlier this month, makes a similar presentation.

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

"I know the media is supposed to remain very detached, and I respect that," Mr. White said. "I deal with it every day. 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 busloads 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.

Mr. White then went to the hotel where the owners are staying to present the 2.2 million signatures on the petitions.

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

When Mr. White spotted James Anderson, 11, in the group, he pulled him to the front and had him present the first petition.

"We're not coming to the NFL as an enemy; we're coming as a friend," the mayor said.

The hotel wasn't that friendly, though. A hotel executive ejected the Big Dawg from the lobby after announcing that only guests of the hotel could stay in the lobby.

A producer for a Baltimore television station who wanted to interview the Big Dawg live had to plead with the hotel executive to let the mascot back into the lobby for the interview.

At 6 p.m., the group returned to the hotel and held a 15-minute flashlight vigil. Mr. White and the Big Dawg walked along the line of fans and thanked them for coming.

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