It is one of the ironies of life that the same nice old man could spend his golden years being villified in one provincial medium-sized metropolis and lionized in another, but Art Modell didn't have much time for irony. He preferred humor.
He was quick with a joke and even quicker to stick his hand out or open his wallet to help a friend or a struggling player or a worthy cause. He was your goofy grandfather who just happened to be one of the great sports visionaries of his time.
Modell died Thursday at the age of 87, no doubt still saddened that the city of Cleveland never forgave him for moving his football team to Baltimore, but never one to spend much time looking back. His unspoken motto was "Forward" long before it was the catchword for one of the current presidential campaigns, and football fans — even those who still curse his name on the shores of Lake Erie — owe him greatly for the important role he played in the phenomenal growth and success of the National Football League.
If you believe that pro football has superceded Major League Baseball as the most popular and entertaining team sport in North America, and you're happy about that, you can thank Modell for pushing to expand the NFL and negotiating a series of national television deals that turned it into an economic powerhouse.
If Monday Night Football takes the edge off the beginning of your work week, you can thank Modell, who helped engineer that watershed move into prime time in 1970 and also the NFL-AFL merger that turned pro football into must-see TV.
If you're a Ravens fan, of course, you can thank Modell for bringing NFL football back to Baltimore after the Colts skipped town, though that particular accomplishment it viewed very differently in northern Ohio.
Modell also played an important role in the league's decision to share revenue, which all but guaranteed competitive parity regardless of market size and contributed to the sport's dramatic rise in popularity. Only in the NFL could a team based in Green Bay, Wis. be a perennially successful franchise in a major professional league.
For much of his career, Modell put the league first — twice putting his football team where his mouth was to further one of those grand experiments. He volunteered the Browns to move to the AFC to facilitate the merger and also inserted them into the very first Monday Night Football game.
It was the time he put his own interests first, however, that would obscure everything else when it came to him getting serious consideration for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His road to Canton has been blocked repeatedly because of long-standing resentment in Cleveland over the circumstances of the Browns' departure.
Sure, he shared responsibility for disappointing loyal Browns fans and leaving that city to go three years without pro football, but it's also important to remember that Cleveland seemed much more willing to accommodate MLB's Indians and the NBA's Cavaliers than one of the NFL's cornerstone franchises.
Time supposedly heals all wounds, but not this one. Even though Modell was a model citizen there for 31/2 decades, the fact that he wanted to save his franchise from financial ruin by accepting a lucrative stadium deal in Baltimore has made him a bigger villain to Cleveland sports fans — all these years later — than LeBron James, who left town as a free agent a couple of years ago and rubbed their noses in it on national television.
The league has mandated that every NFL stadium observe a moment of silence for Modell on Sunday and Monday, and that includes Cleveland Browns Stadium, which might not be there if he had not uprooted his franchise. The Browns have indicated that they will give Modell an "appropriate recognition" before their season opener against the Philadelphia Eagles, but it won't be a complete surprise if a lot of fans don't respond appropriately.
If there was ever a time to let go of an old grudge, this would be it, but we won't know until early next year whether Modell's chances of getting to Canton have improved with his passing.
Don't take my word for it. Take it from someone who did Cleveland as proud as anyone and thinks Modell deserves better — Hall of Famer Jim Brown.
"Regardless of whether or not you think he deserves to be [in the Pro Football Hall of Fame], he won the World Championship in 1964, he won the Super Bowl in 2000, and he was a great inspiration to the television development of the National Football League,'' Brown said in a statement released by the Ravens. "So, why should he not be in the Hall of Fame? I say that he should be, regardless of what the people of Cleveland think. You just don't deal with revenge or animosity to a man [who] has done so much for the game."
Hopefully, some hearts will soften and Modell will get his due. Surely, if the dislikable Al Davis deserves to be in the Hall of Fame after moving his franchise back and forth between Oakland and Los Angeles and playing musical stadium deals to the economic detriment of several communities, the gentlemanly Modell deserves to be there, too.
It has already been much too long.
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck in his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" on baltimoresun.com and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" Fridays at noon on WBAL (1090AM) and wbal.com.
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