Brooklyn-born Art Modell, former Ravens owner, dies at 87
The longtime NFL stalwart incurred the wrath of Cleveland fans when he moved the team from Ohio and admittedly tarnished his own legacy as a civic leader.
Born June 23, 1925, in Brooklyn, Modell dropped out of high school at age 15 and worked in the Brooklyn Navy Yard cleaning out the hulls of ships to help out his financially strapped family after the death of his father.
He completed New Utrecht High School at night, joined the Air Force in 1943, and then enrolled in a television school after World War II. He used that education to produce one of the first regular daytime television programs before moving into the advertising business in 1954.
A group of friends led by Modell purchased the Browns in 1961 for $4 million — a figure he called “totally excessive.”
Modell was among the most important figures in the NFL as owner of the Cleveland Browns and a league insider. During his four decades as a team owner, he helped negotiate the NFL’s lucrative contracts with television networks, served as president of the NFL from 1967 to 1969, and chaired the negotiations for the first the collective bargaining agreement with the players in 1968.
He also was the driving force behind the 1970 contract between the NFL and ABC to televise games on Monday night.
Modell, however, made one decision that hounded him the rest of his life. He moved the Cleveland franchise to Baltimore in 1996, and Ohio fans never forgave him for it.
“It’s a shame that one decision hurt how some people think of him, because he did so much good,” said Doug Dieken, a Browns offensive lineman for 14 years.
Practically overnight, the man who was one of Cleveland’s most notable civic leaders was a pariah in his own community.
“I have a great legacy, tarnished somewhat by the move,” he said in 1999. “The politicians and the bureaucrats saw fit to cover their own rear ends by blaming it on me.”
The move was also believed to be the main reason why Modell never made it into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was one of 15 finalists in 2001 and a semifinalist seven times between 2004 and 2011.
The Ravens won their lone Super Bowl in January 2001, less than a year after Modell sold a minority interest of the team to Steve Bisciotti. In April 2004, Bisciotti completed purchase of the franchise but left Modell a 1 percent share.
“He worked alongside Lamar Hunt, Tex Schramm, Well Mara and Art Rooney, and all of those men are in the Hall of Fame,” former Browns guard John Wooten said. “He worked with them in all of those meetings. He was there. It is indeed a shame that he is not in the Hall of Fame.”
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell praised Modell’s work within the league as it was gaining momentum a half century ago.
“Art Modell’s leadership was an important part of the NFL’s success during the league’s explosive growth during the 1960s and beyond,” Goodell said in a statement. “Art was a visionary who understood the critical role that mass viewing of NFL games on broadcast television could play in growing the NFL.”
Modell said he lost millions of dollars operating the Browns in Cleveland and cited the state of Maryland’s financial package, including construction of a $200 million stadium, as his reasons for leaving Ohio. The Baltimore Colts had left Maryland for Indianapolis in 1984.
“This has been a very, very tough road for my family and me,” Modell said at the time of the Browns move. “I leave my heart and part of my soul in Cleveland. But frankly, it came down to a simple proposition: I had no choice.”
Modell wasn’t the kind of owner who operated his team from an office. He mingled with the players and often watched every minute of practice.
“Art talked with me every day when I played in Baltimore,” former Ravens tight end Shannon Sharpe said. “He knew everything about what was going on in my life. He showed real concern. But, it wasn’t just me. He knew the practice squad players’ names. He treated them the same. He was out at practice when it was 100 degrees and when the December snows came. I loved playing for him.”
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