CHICAGO -- The National Football League officially endorsed a delicate compromise yesterday that will return the league to Baltimore and end a three-month battle for the Browns that divided the league and angered sports fans across the country.
Voting 25-2 with three abstentions, the league agreed to an unprecedented deal through which it will allow Art Modell to move a renamed Browns franchise to Baltimore this fall and by 1999 put a team in a new Cleveland stadium partially funded by the NFL.
The Baltimore club now needs only the approval of the Maryland General Assembly, consent that the Maryland Stadium Authority says it is confident of obtaining, despite pockets of opposition among lawmakers opposed to lavish spending on sports teams. The matter could win final approval there as early as next month.
"The whistle has blown on this game, and it is time for a new life in Baltimore, my new hometown," said Mr. Modell, who has endured three months of national outrage and legal challenges to his decision.
NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue invoked the memories of former Baltimore Colts greats such as Johnny Unitas when he announced the city's readmission to the league.
"Baltimore was the only city in America that was one of our strong expansion finalists and a former NFL city with a strong football tradition," Mr. Tagliabue said.
Mr. Tagliabue said that the extraordinary lengths the league went to in order to have franchises in Baltimore and Cleveland were justified by the unique history of football in both cities and were unlikely to be repeated, despite a recent rash of team moves.
Last night at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, Mr. Modell stepped out of the private plane terminal and into a party of several hundred fans who showered him with confetti and held up signs expressing gratitude.
Mr. Modell was clearly moved at receiving a hero's welcome.
"I'm happy to be home again," he said. "I lived through the '60s and early '70s of the old Baltimore Colts. I fully intend to bring back and then some, the legacy of Unitas, Marchetti and Berry and Donovan.
"There's a tremendous tradition here, great football fans, and the Modell family and associates are delighted to be a part of it."
Mr. Modell acknowledged that recent months had not been easy.
"We've fighting and fighting and fighting," he said. "It's been an uphill fight, but we are here to stay."
The man who led the fight, Maryland Stadium Authority Chairman John Moag, looked the most tired of those standing at the podium.
'They did come through'
In a voice that was barely audible, Mr. Moag said: "I want to thank the NFL, because, in the final analysis, they did come through for his city. We're part of that family now."
"This is a good deal," said Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. "It gets us out of court. It brings some certainty to the process. This is a day for celebration."
As promised, the Washington Redskins voted for the relocation, but only after a short speech opposing the move by executive vice president John Kent Cooke to team owners.
The Redskins, who long have opposed competition in Baltimore, are seeking $73 million in state assistance for their own stadium in Prince George's County, and their support was requested by Gov. Parris N. Glendening.
The deliberations dragged on for several hours yesterday morning, as the owners debated behind closed doors such sensitive issues as league financing of stadiums and the dislocation of fans caused by team shifts.
The no votes were from two owners who have argued passionately that relocations endanger the league's unspoken covenant with its fans: the Pittsburgh Steelers' Dan Rooney and the Buffalo Bills' Ralph Wilson.
Owners said Mr. Wilson delivered a 45-minute diatribe against the spate of team moves -- five franchises either have moved or announced they are moving in the past year.
"I got the two no votes from my closest friends in football. I respect them for voting their consciences," said Mr. Modell, who shook Mr. Rooney and Mr. Wilson's hands after the vote.
Speaking most fervently for the deal was the San Diego Chargers' Alex Spanos, who, along with Mr. Modell, was a member of a league committee that in 1993 voted against putting an expansion team in Baltimore.
Mr. Spanos urged his fellow owners to vote yes despite concerns that other teams and cities now may expect NFL financing for stadiums.
"I don't like all the moving that's going on. I don't think anyone does. But it does pay off," Mr. Spanos told reporters, noting the high price cities such as Baltimore have paid to attract teams.
Three other teams -- the Arizona Cardinals, Oakland Raiders and St. Louis Rams -- abstained, which was tantamount to voting no, because league rules required the approval of 23 teams. All either have moved or have considered moving over the past two years and dispute the legality of the league's control over where teams play.