Offered an out, Modell opted for path of pain

September 26, 1999|By John Steadman

Had Art Modell listened to reason and accepted a plan that his peers in NFL ownership and the commissioner proposed, there would be no such thing as a Cleveland/Baltimore hate relationship. It didn't have to be this way.

And Modell would have avoided the grief and bitterness that his betrayal of Cleveland created. All he had to do was leave the Browns there and agree to operate an expansion team in Baltimore. A simple way out of an ugly situation that the league was trying to get him to accept, mainly through the efforts of president Neil Austrian.

After Modell decided during the 1995 season that he was leaving Cleveland, which triggered a firestorm unprecedented in the history of American sports, the league went into damage-control mode. It wanted 1) to save itself from the avalanche of criticism it was receiving, and 2) to rescue Modell from the unpopular and even potentially dangerous position in which he had placed himself.

Taking the Browns from a stupendous football city, which had supported a team for 49 years, 35 of which were under the direction of Modell, was wrongfully compared to the defection of the Colts to Indianapolis. True to an extent, but yet a different scenario.

A confused Bob Irsay had been warning Baltimore for at least eight years that he was going to take the Colts and play elsewhere. He was blatant in his travel talk, be it a move to Jacksonville, Memphis, Phoenix or Los Angeles.

Modell's jump came out of the blue, without notice. He had let Cleveland believe he would make the best of a bad stadium situation and, in fact, said he wasn't interested in the Gateway project, a Cleveland renaissance that held the possibility of a new football facility.

Cleveland customarily drew crowds of 78,000, even more than 80,000 on occasion. The Cleveland-to-Baltimore disclosure took place in midseason, when football interest was at its height. It jolted the nation. The timing couldn't have been worse for Modell.

The 1984 Baltimore loss of the Colts to Indianapolis came under different circumstances. It occurred in late March football still six months away, with the focus on a baseball season soon to open, plus college basketball's Final Four and golf's Masters.

Media attention to what was going on in Baltimore with the Colts, out of season, drew coverage, but its importance was sidetracked with so much going on, even as the NFL already had one costly fight on its hands in battling the Oakland Raiders' switch to Los Angeles.

Baltimore had been forewarned by Irsay. Cleveland, much to the contrary, was leveled by Modell's sneak punch. The bitterness toward Modell was manifested with stories and columns in such publications as the New York Times and Sports Illustrated, which presented a caricature of him on its cover delivering a below-the-belt blow to Cleveland fans.

Modell's action brought such reaction that he felt it was essential to hire a bodyguard. Visiting Cleveland, even for a social call, was out of the question. He came under a tidal wave of denunciation.

The league, attempting to repair the breach, hoped Modell would agree to leave the Browns in Cleveland and accept an invitation to become an expansion owner in Baltimore. Two years before all this happened, Modell introduced Al Lerner as a prospective Baltimore owner, but only two teams, the Bears and Eagles, were in support.

It was particularly embarrassing for the men leading the Baltimore bid, Matt DeVito and Gov. William Donald Schaefer, when Modell and Lerner didn't even call to say goodbye. Furthermore, compounding the humiliation, Modell didn't vote for Baltimore but, two years later, took the most profitable deal ever offered a franchise owner -- in case you've forgotten, it includes sweetheart rental terms for 30 years, all income from parking and concessions, the right to impose permanent seat license fees and the bargain-purchased right to sell the name of the stadium to a corporate entity.

Maryland, which paid for the stadium with public money, took it on the chin. Now, despite such a bonanza, Modell is still in hock to the league and needs a minority partner to get off the hook.

That brings us to the stage this afternoon of Cleveland vs. Baltimore, the Browns against the Ravens (nee Browns), and Modell's team meeting the one now owned by Lerner. For the Ravens, they catch a breather in the new edition of the Browns, a far cry from what they used to be.

The Ravens plan to start a new quarterback in Stoney Case, but the most talented player at the position hasn't been given a chance. Not for a single down. The reference is to Tony Banks, who is far and away the best of the threesome, even if the coaches don't know it.

If evaluating talent at quarterback is any criterion of what the future portends, then the Ravens may be in trouble. Scott Mitchell, through no fault of his, was the wrong choice to begin with -- again a reflection on coaching judgment. Case is an improvement but Banks, still unused, is better.

Cleveland and Baltimore. Irony abounds. So does the hurt and torment of how it all came about.

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