Cleveland, Art Modell, and the Hall of Fame: More than Just a Grudge

by Cleveland Frowns on February 17, 2010

In the wake of NFL Hall of Fame voters’ most recent passing on Art Modell’s candidacy for enshrinement, a new facebook page has been dedicated to keeping Modell out of Hall, and it’s already gained some 1,500 members in little over a week, prompting some to criticize Cleveland fans for their “hate” for Modell. But of course, hate doesn’t have anything to do with the objective moral correctness of this facebook group and its stated objective of keeping Modell out of the Hall of Fame, Cleveland fan or not.

There’s no question it was a tragedy when Modell took the Browns out of Cleveland (as it was when Robert Irsay left Baltimore with the Colts in 1984, noted) and there’s not much that needs to be said about an NFL franchise as a public trust, or especially the way that trust is engrained and cherished  in Northeast Ohio. In recognition of this, the NFL’s Commissioner at the time, Paul Tagliabue, publicly stated that the league would have tried to keep Modell from moving the Browns if the triple damages imposed by U.S. antitrust law weren’t so prohibitive.*

What Tagliabue also recognized with this statement was the tension that presents the best case for keeping Modell out of the Hall, that between the public trust that is/was the Cleveland Browns, and the private property rights of the owner who, at least to some degree, made the Cleveland Browns possible.

The main point with respect to the Hall of Fame candidacy, however, is that while Modell might have his property rights, nobody’s born with a right to be in any hall of fame; If we can’t prevent an owner from moving a franchise solely in his own private interest at the expense of the public’s, we can at least keep him out of the Hall of Fame for the decision. Where the NFL is constrained legally with respect to franchise mobility, it certainly isn’t (nor are its custodians, the fans and the press,) with respect to Hall of Fame enshrinement. Again, keeping Modell out of the Hall is really the only thing we can do here, so why wouldn’t we do it?

Modell and his defenders point fingers at Cleveland officials here, but we’ve never heard from Browns fans who were worried about needing a new stadium, and if the case against the City was compelling (here’s one detailed account showing that it wasn’t), it would have been easy enough to take it to the City’s people first, and probably actually would have resulted in one of the most useful lessons imaginable in how a democratic republic is supposed to work. More to the point, though, nobody’s trying to put Michael White into any halls of fame either.

Sure, Modell might otherwise have good Hall of Fame credentials, and sure, life is full of really complicated decisions, especially for folks as rich and powerful as Modell, who might otherwise be one of the best men to ever walk on Earth. But if certain decisions just aren’t so difficult. Fine for Baltimore to love Modell, fine for him to be otherwise recognized as a great man, and fine if a great man can make a complicated decision to rip the heart and soul out of tens of millions of people and an entire region by moving what’s much more than a football franchise. He just doesn’t get to be in the Hall of Fame if he does.

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*Tagliabue’s statement is confirmed by Bob Costas here at this short recording of NBC’s pregame broadcast of the last Browns game in 1995 that also contains a heroic statement on the part of Mike Ditka in support of Cleveland against Modell that lends deeper significance to the phrase “that’s something Coach would say.”

“Most of the country really doesn’t understand the significance of what’s occurring in Cleveland.  But they should.  If it can happen here, it can happen anywhere.  . . . These fans are some of the greatest fans in the country.  I said that when I was a coach when I had to come in here. . . . The fans don’t care about this Stadium.  They like this Stadium.”

Watch the whole thing.  Brian Sipe makes an appearance as well.

Also, here’s a recording from Sportscenter on that day, a link to Mary Kay Cabot’s game-day account, here’s a look at an alternative history, and here’s what might be the best look at the last day, a short piece by NFL Films (good luck keeping your eyes dry after the 2:07 mark here . . . “nobody inside these walls”).

[UPDATE:  Modell biographer and Hall of Fame selector Len Shapiro of the Washington Post responds to this post.  And here's more on the response, or lack there of, from Modell's most vocal supporters.]

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A nod the Plain Dealer’s Tony Grossi who’s well known as the leader of the cause.  To have been a fly on the wall when this happened:

Six years ago, when Modell’s candidacy had its best chance – while Art still owned the Ravens and was fresh off of the Super Bowl XXXV victory – it was shot down in a legendary way when Tony Grossi, Cleveland’s representative and outspoken hater of all things Modell [advocate of justice] on behalf of the greater Cuyahoga and Northern Ohio area, gave an impassioned speech about how what Modell did to his hometown should forever forbid his enshrinement to Canton. This much is public record.

If anyone has any record of this speech (there’s another reference to it here), please do pass it on, as well as any statement on the part of Grossi explaining his opposition.  These things aren’t as easy to find as one might think they’d be.

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Happy Wednesday.  Back later with a Frowndup.

  • WFNYCraig

    I agree with that one section completely where you say it is Baltimore fans' jobs to love Modell if they want. My job in life as a Browns fan isn't to be fair as an NFL historian. Someone else would have come up with Monday Night Football. So, he came up with it first. So? My job is to be fair as a Browns fan and Browns historian. In that respect Modell is unforgivable and forever tarnished as a figure in NFL history.

    I don't see how there is any choice about the matter. Call it easy and predictable, but sometimes that is the role I choose to take on in my life as a Browns fan.

    It is like certain people I know who complain about LeBron because they don't want to be apologists or look like blind sycophants for LBJ to other fans around the country. So they criticize. Other people are already filling the role of LBJ hater with energy and passion. If we don't represent our point of view, then who will?

  • Cleveland Frowns

    I hear that, but in case it's not clear, I don't see why any NFL fan outside of Baltimore would want to see Art in the Hall after what he did to Cleveland.

  • smittypop2

    I agree frownie. No way this dick should ever be in the Hall.

  • the commenter formerly known as p

    joined the group immediately. no way should modell get in the hall.

  • Chris

    Can we be honest here and concede that a Facebook page dedicating itself to this cause is a joke?

    Don't mistake that question for me thinking that Modell belongs in the hall. F him.

  • Pittsburgh is for Man Lovers

    While you made some very insightful and thought provoking arguments that were very clearly well thought out, my preference is to go with my emotions and condemn him to Pittsburgh with plenty of donkey punches from Hines Ward. From my standpoint, there's plenty of things in life to analyze. For me, being a Cleveland sports fan is something I choose to be emotional about and react in whatever overwhelming feeling comes over me (usually anger). But I'm glad to see there's empirical evidence to validate my hate and loathing.

  • the commenter formerly known as p

    how's this for empirical evidence? here's what modell said after his decision to move the brownies was approved:

    "People in Cleveland can now envision a state of the art football season by the lake, by the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame," he said. "When the stadium is built, the great rivalry with Pittsburgh will resume. I'm proud of having contributed to the great legacy of the team. All the national furor over this, compared to other teams moving, is something of a reflection of how I marketed the team on a national basis." http://www.nytimes.com/1996/02/09/sports/pro-football-nfl-maps-out-cleveland-to-baltimore-route.html

    thanks for the favor art! you're right – your decision to move the franchise doesn't evidence your willingness to put your own interests ahead of cleveland's. actually, it's an example of you doing something good for cleveland (if only those silly, very angry browns fans could think straight, they'd understand this). a new-and-improved brownie team playing in a new-and-improved stadium is exactly what the doctor ordered! and the "furor" you caused by moving the browns wasn't due to the fact that you made a tragic decision to "rip the heart and soul out of tens of millions of people" and that people around the country – browns fans or not – recognized that decision for what it was. no – the "furor" is just an illustration of your own marketing genius.

    *i sort of couldn't help letting the empirical evidence morph into hate and loathing – sorry in advance.

  • Pittsburgh is for Man Lovers

    It's a very good thing when the two worlds coincide.

  • Lee Edge

    Agree 100% Frowns and p. Next time I log into Facebook I'm joining the group. As a Steelers fan living in Cleveland it drives me crazy that the great historic rivalry between these teams was gutted for so long by Modell's actions. Think what the rivalry would be if the "Ravens" organization would have stayed in Cleveland.

  • Cleveland Frowns

    Great work, formerly. Great work.

    You too, PML: "Finding empirical evidence for one's emotions" will be the subject of a lengthy post here tomorrow.

  • Cleveland Frowns

    I got an email from Len Shapiro of the Washington Post about this. Shapiro wrote wrote Modell's autobiography for him, and is one of the leading proponents for his Hall candidacy.

    He told me to go ahead and post his email, but I'm waiting to see if he'll respond to my reply first.

  • Pittsburgh is for Man Lovers

    As one of the guys who spearheaded Art Monk's HOF campaign, I pray that he has considerably less success with this one. I hope he wakes up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night one of these days realizing he has been dealing with the devil (in football related terms, of course).

  • bee

    given grossi's attempt to get mangini fired, i'm not so inclined to accept that personal agenda had nothing to do with grossi's stance on modell. and it makes me wonder;
    just what *did* grossi do in the interim, anyway?

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