NFL: Was Art Modell a Villain, a Hero or Both? Depends on Who You Ask

James WilliamsAnalyst IIISeptember 7, 2012

Hoisting his only Super Bowl Trophy back in 2000
Hoisting his only Super Bowl Trophy back in 2000Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Yesterday, at the age of 87, Art Modell died. It did not take long for the press in Cleveland and Baltimore to react.

Was he a hero or villain—or perhaps both?

It depends on where you are from. The residents of Cleveland will never forgive him for taking their beloved team away from them in 1995. Meanwhile, in Baltimore he is viewed as a hero for bringing football back to a town that had been without a team since the Colts left the middle of the night back in March of 1984.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer offered an editorial this morning that began with this opening paragraph:  

“His death certificate will say that Arthur Bertram Modell died at 4 a.m. Thursday. But Modell had been dead to many, perhaps most, sports fans in Greater Cleveland since Nov. 6, 1995, when he told them he was taking their Browns to Baltimore…more.”

Also from the Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist Terry Pluto offered these thoughts about Modell and Cleveland:

“It didn't have to end this way. That's what comes to mind when I heard that Art Modell died today at the age of 87. It didn't have to end with Modell being so loathed in his adopted hometown of Cleveland, that he couldn't return. It didn't have to end with Modell cutting a deal to move the Browns to Baltimore on Al Lerner's private jet. …more.”

Clearly, in Cleveland, Modell remains public enemy No. 1 and even more reviled than LeBron James.

In an ESPN poll conducted back in June of 2011, 54 percent of the people voting felt the former Browns owner was more disliked than James, who left the Cavs and headed to South Beach to play for the Heat.  



But in Baltimore there is a much different view of Modell. A view of a man who had the guts to take his team and bring it to Charm City to an area that adored him.

The Baltimore Sun’s Mike Klingaman on the passing of Modell and what he meant to Baltimore:

Art Modell may have returned football to Baltimore, but in the eyes of the silver-haired owner, the Ravens were clearly a team of the people.

Eleven years ago, amid a swirl of confetti following the Ravens' Super Bowl victory in Tampa, a tearful Mr. Modell hoisted the Vince Lombardi Trophy aloft and declared, “To the people in Baltimore City, to the people in Baltimore County and to the state of Maryland, this belongs to you….more

The Baltimore Sun's Mike Preston offered this view of Modell the family man:

It's impossible to talk about the history of the league without mentioning the contributions of Modell. His legacy is as great as some of the NFL's other storied men, like Wellington Mara and George Halas. Modell transcended the game from the days of Blanton Collier and Jim Brown to the times of Ray Lewis and Jonathan Ogden.

He won NFL championships in 1964 and 2000, but Modell loved his family more than football. He adored his wife Pat, who died last October. He may have been the owner, but we all knew who the boss was. He spent countless hours talking about his grandchildren, and actually confessed to me once how miserable his life had become when one of his sons got divorced years ago. Modell was criticized for being greedy when he moved the Browns from Cleveland to Baltimore, but he knew that was the only way he could set up his family financially before he died…more.


In my professional career I can honestly say that Modell was one of the most interesting people that I had ever met in my 30-plus years of covering sports. Yesterday when he passed away I recalled the first time we met. It was 1980 at Tampa Stadium, the Browns were in town to face the Bucs and I was a producer and reporter for the John McKay coaches show.

I wanted to talk about Modell and his impact on the growth of the NFL from his work to get Monday Night Football on the air to his role in getting the NFL to accept the merger with the AFL. Modell, who put together a group to buy the Browns in 1961, was a character straight out of Mad Men.

He was a former television and advertising executive. He was a great interview; he loved to talk to the media and he gave me one of the best history lessons on the NFL that I could have ever asked for. Not to mention a great feature for the show. 

Over the next 27 years our paths would cross many times when I worked in Cleveland in the 1980s and then again when I moved to my present post in Washington, D. C. in 1992. Three years later Modell would relocate his team to Baltimore and I would see him at Ravens games or practices.

The man I interviewed in Tampa in 1980 was the same man I interviewed and spoke to countless times in both Cleveland and Baltimore. A guy who loved being an owner in the NFL, who loved his players and was very philanthropic in both Cleveland and Baltimore, working with his wife Pat (who passed away in October) on a number of charitable projects.

So I saw what he did in both cities and I understand the dislike for him in Cleveland but at the same time I saw the utter joy that he brought to Baltimore. But I was not emotionally involved with either city giving me the ability to be objective.   

Let me say that I was not a friend of Modell, but simply someone who covered him. That said I firmly believe that Modell deserves to be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio for the reasons I listed earlier in this story. This should not be about either Cleveland or Baltimore, but what the man did for the NFL.  

Lastly, I  wanted to share a great column written by Marla Ridenour the fine columnist of the Akron Beacon Journal who wrote: 

I will miss dialing Art Modell’s home phone number and him answering on the first ring.

I will miss not hearing the Ben Dreith story for the umpteenth time.

I will miss his references to Chuck Heston and Suzie Pleshette and his other Hollywood friends and wish I were ordering an Art Modell Salad at Matteo’s in West Los Angeles...more.