Cloud over Newsome's big moment

August 07, 1999|By Ken Rosenthal

Imagine if the Pro Football Hall of Fame were in Maryland, and Robert Irsay had attended the induction of a former Colt less than three years after moving the team to Indianapolis.

It would have been an ugly scene -- precisely the kind of scene Ravens owner Art Modell wanted to avoid when he decided to skip Ozzie Newsome's induction today in Canton, Ohio.

"That's something I told him the day it was announced he would enter the Hall: `I will not be there, out of respect for you,' " Modell said.

It's a shame that Modell can't be in Canton to honor one of his greatest players and favorite employees -- Newsome, a former tight end for the Cleveland Browns, is now the Ravens' vice president of player personnel.

But Modell's choice is part of the inevitable fallout from his decision to leave Cleveland for Baltimore -- a decision that will forever taint his legacy in the city where he owned the Browns for 35 years.

Modell must accept the consequences for his actions -- just as his new city and state must brace for another round of national disdain when the Ravens face the reborn Browns twice this season.

Is it fair? Not completely.

Is it reality? Absolutely.

Neither Modell, 74, nor his son, David, 37, seriously considered going to Canton, a city approximately 40 miles southeast of Cleveland.

"It's a personal loss to me, but I would do nothing to distract from Ozzie's day in Canton, pure and simple," Art Modell said.

"I would like to have been there. So would [Modell's wife] Pat, because of our affection for Ozzie. But it's more important that he enjoy the day without any intrusion."

Said David Modell, the Ravens' team president: "It's more than moderately disappointing, but on the greatest day of Ozzie's professional football playing career, it would be extremely unfair to instigate any added sideshow."

What exactly did the Modells fear?

"It's hard to say, but if there was a problem, that would be unfair to Ozzie. He doesn't deserve that headache," David Modell said.

So, the Modells will watch on television, just as they are likely to do when the Ravens play their first game in Cleveland on Nov. 7.

The reaction to an appearance by the Modells that day would be even more vehement than it would have been at today's ceremonies. But David said he expects to return to his former hometown eventually.

"You bet," David said. "I'll see football in the new Cleveland stadium. I don't think there's any doubt I'll definitely go back there. I just don't know when."

Meanwhile, the anger over the Browns' departure continues to cause discomfort for everyone involved.

Newsome, a Modell employee for 21 years, has struggled with how to mention the owner during his Hall of Fame acceptance speech. Modell told him not to bother.

"Now that I'm here, the emotion is more for me than I thought," Newsome said last night at a dinner honoring the Hall of Famers in Canton. "It's so sad that Art cannot be a part of this because he's so much a part of my being here.

"Am I going to say his name tomorrow? He's friend. It's more than he's my boss. He's more than a guy I've worked with since 1978. He's my close friend. I will speak from my heart tomorrow afternoon."

Kevin Byrne, the Ravens' vice president of public relations and marketing, said both he and Newsome received hate mail from Cleveland, including a letter from a woman who threatened to carry "Traitor of Oz" posters today.

Such a demonstration would cross the line of decency -- Newsome has said he was left with two options when Modell moved to Baltimore: Become one of the top African-American executives in professional sports or a tight-ends coach with another team.

Everyone in Baltimore can understand Cleveland's bitterness, but perhaps after the Ravens' November visit, it will become fair to ask: When will it be time to move on?

For all his faults, Modell had a far greater community impact on Cleveland than the late Irsay did on Baltimore, donating to charity, helping revive downtown, serving as a civic leader.

What's more, Cleveland received a far better deal than Baltimore from the NFL, regaining a team after three years instead of 13, and retaining the Browns' names, colors and history.

It can even be argued that Cleveland is better off without Modell, an owner many Browns fans came to despise.

No one wanted a three-year hiatus from the NFL, or the excessive cost of a new stadium. But a stadium would have been part of the equation even if Modell had stayed. And the new Browns owner, Al Lerner, faces none of the financial problems that continue to haunt Modell in Baltimore.

Then again, those are rational arguments, and this is an emotional issue.

An issue to which Baltimore can relate.

An issue that forced the Modells to skip the Hall of Fame induction of a man they consider part of their family.

"Ozzie knows that whether we're there with him physically or not, we're there with him in spirit," David Modell said.

Pub Date: 8/07/99

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