There is little question that Art Modell would be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame by now if he had not uprooted the financially strapped Cleveland Browns and moved the franchise to Baltimore almost two decades ago.
The rest of his legacy as one of the NFL's most visionary owners is unquestioned, and no one can look at the amazing popularity and profitability of the sport and deny that Modell's fingerprints are all over it.
So, here's hoping that when Hall of Fame voters fill out their ballots next Saturday in New Orleans, enough of them put a check next to Modell's name to finally allow him — at least in spirit — to return to Ohio in triumph instead of ignominy.
Maybe, just maybe, enough time has passed for Clevelanders to let go of their anger and bitterness, let Modell rest in peace and allow their once-beloved franchise to mine every ounce of history and magic out of this unlikely Super Bowl run.
The Ravens have confounded the experts by pulling off big playoff upsets against the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots. They are on the verge of putting the ultimate postscript on the career of legendary linebacker Ray Lewis. And there's an outside chance that Modell and all-everything offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden could be elected to the Hall of Fame on the day before the Ravens face the San Francisco 49ers for the rest of the marbles.
It isn't the fans in Cleveland who are standing in the way of that, of course, but they – and their media surrogates – have done a masterful job over the past 16 years of making Modell's one civic transgression overshadow the rest of a football life that was lived with grace, humor and great distinction.
For the voters who have long scorned Modell for the way he departed Cleveland all those years ago, it is time give back that pound of flesh. The debt has been paid. Modell passed away in September without receiving the recognition due him for the role he played in merging the NFL and AFL, expanding the television lineup into prime time and – for that matter – all of his philanthropic efforts in the state that now holds him in such low regard.
It's hard to ask passionate sports fans to look at the bigger picture, but the Browns are still in Cleveland and the fans there no longer have to trudge into the cesspool known as Cleveland Municipal Stadium to watch them play. They didn't have to cringe as their team colors were paraded through another city or listen to NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue console them after their failed expansion effort by advising them to "build another museum."
The whole Modell/Robert Irsay comparison is just sour apples and oranges. Modell was a pillar of the community in Cleveland, and cared enough about the fans there to leave their colors behind in anticipation of a new franchise and the sparkling new stadium the old Browns were never promised.
Irsay was a dislikable character who was never embraced by the people of Baltimore and was blamed for the way one of the NFL's most storied franchises declined after he acquired it in 1972. He spirited the Colts out of town in the dead of night and never looked back, taking the team's history and its beloved horseshoe with him.
There's no point in replaying everything that led to Modell's departure, except to say that he bore responsibility for the sad state of the team's finances and the city of Cleveland left him with only two choices — sell the team that he considered his family for 35 years or move it to a place where the economics were more favorable. The only reason that was a hard decision was because Modell truly loved the people of Cleveland and went to his grave hoping they would someday forgive him for it.
"I leave my heart and part of my soul in Cleveland,'' he told the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1996. "But frankly, it came down to a simple proposition: I had no choice."
Modell has moved on, but the football fans of Cleveland still have a choice. They can put aside the petty bitterness and let go of all that anger. They can remember the good times and listen to the great Jim Brown, who has implored them to focus on all the good Modell did for the NFL and Northeast Ohio.
"I would hope so because the game today is a reflection of people like Art," Brown told the NFL Network soon after Modell's death last September. "It's a tremendous game today. It generates tremendous fun for people, they love it. The game is great. The players are fantastic. The money is awesome, and Art was a part of that great vision."
It isn't just time for Art Modell to be inducted in the Hall of Fame. It is long overdue.
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" at noon Fridays on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.
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