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Spitballin’

Modell, Citizen

When we line up at the gates of Camden Yards or Ravens Stadium, we aren’t rooting for a business; we’re rooting for memories.

Art Modell, beloved owner of the Baltimore Ravens, passed away at 4 A.M. last Thursday in Johns Hopkins hospital. He was 87. For 43 years Modell was an NFL owner and a force in shaping not only the NFL but the entirety of modern American sports. That night, as the Orioles took the field to battle the Yankees, the Baltimore City and Maryland state flags flew at half-mast over the Yard. In Cleveland, the flags did not dip.

Now the talk in NFL circles is whether, with his passing, Modell will finally be inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame. There is no doubt he deserves it. Modell’s Browns won the NFL Championship in 1964—the last championship for any Cleveland team—and his Ravens won the Super Bowl in 2001. Modell served from 1967-69 as the only elected president in NFL history, and in 1968 he helped orchestrate the first collective bargaining agreement between players and the league. He was instrumental in forging the merger between the NFL and the upstart AFL, even agreeing to move the Browns into the AFC to break the deadlock. In the ’60s, he pushed for more integration in the locker room, and upon moving to Baltimore, he made Ozzie Newsome the first black general manager in football. He was a media visionary and a driving force behind Monday Night Football, which helped turn the NFL into a cultural juggernaut. In the ’80s, he pushed the conservative league into cable, making the first deal with ESPN.

But it’s clear why Modell, who was a finalist for induction in 2002, has been held out of the Hall. For those of us in Baltimore who now bleed purple, it’s difficult to remember the conflicted pangs many of us felt when the Browns packed up and moved to Baltimore, ripping the heart out of another town so much like our own. We justify our loathing for the subhuman Bob Irsay and our love of the saintly Modell saying, Cleveland got to keep their colors, their history, their name. Modell insisted there’d be no Baltimore Browns.

And after his passing, it is clear that his former players loved him; the outpouring of sadness and genuine affection has been unending. And Modell clearly loved Cleveland. He and his wife Pat were heavily involved in Cleveland charities and Art proudly served as the president of the Cleveland Clinic. By all accounts, Art Modell was a good man. But his charity work is now largely forgotten in Cleveland, where he is remembered for one thing, which has kept him from the Hall. “When you rip a franchise out by its roots,” says Newsday columnist and Hall of Fame voter Bob Glauber, “It just makes it almost impossible to put him in that spot. I can’t get past it.”

Even Cleveland’s most ardent Modell hater will admit that Art had to move the team if he wanted to keep it. He was a rarity in the NFL in that the Browns were his family business. Modell didn’t have a billion-dollar staffing company to fall back on, and he was stuck in the worst stadium with the worst deal in the NFL. Cleveland had built new facilities for the Indians and the Cavaliers but would not do the same for the Browns. “I didn’t give up 35 years of my life, where I was part of everything that went on in Cleveland, because I happen to like crab cakes,” Modell told the New York Daily News, “I moved for a legitimate reason. It was tough.”

No one would have begrudged Art moving his McDonald’s franchise to save the family business. He wouldn’t have been considered heartless or cruel, and he wouldn’t have been forced to travel with bodyguards because of the stacks of death threats. But people don’t stand in line at the McDonald’s, their knuckles white, praying for the fortunes of Ronald and the Hamburglar. They don’t scream until their voices fail them when the McRib returns. Nor do they feel like that McDonalds is somehow theirs, that they’ve got a stake.

When we line up at the gates of Camden Yards or Ravens Stadium, we aren’t rooting for a business; we’re rooting for memories of games shared with fathers, with daughters, with friends. We root with hearts full of the joy of past triumphs and the pain of what, in the light of day, were never truly tragedies. We remember when Brooks Robinson signed our baseball at the opening of the High’s store in the Rosedale Shopping Center, or when Jonathan Ogden shook our hands and reminded us there are giants in the world. We root for a team that belongs to a city and we try to forget that, for some lucky few, our team is their business, and that is why Art Modell never made the Hall while he lived. It was penance for his sin of reminding us that he owned those colors. It was penance for taking a team and reminding us it was his franchise.

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