I may have been a harsh critic of Art Modell in the 1990s, but I take no particular glee in Modell's passing yesterday.
The one-time Browns owner had long ago passed into irrelevance on the NFL stage, and opinions about him have been set in stone in Cleveland for years.
Dead or alive, Art Modell's actions spoke for themselves. No amount of historical revisionism from his advocates, quickly paraded across the media over the last 24 hours, will change his memory among the people who truly matter, the life-long Browns fans in Cleveland.
Nearly 20 years after the events of 1995, I view Modell as a tragic figure, a man with a strong marketing gift who simply couldn't manage his own business, and selfishly opted to move his team to Baltimore in a futile attempt to keep ownership in the family. Any good he did in his successful youth was eroded over time as the weight of his failures and bad business decisions mounted, forcing the ultimate betrayal of a fan base.
In the end, Modell was left with nearly nothing: No plaque in the Hall of Fame, no meaningful ownership in his franchise, no team for his adopted son to inherit.
Cleveland fans lost, Art Modell lost.
The only winner was the group of NFL owners who watched as new stadiums began to pop up across the landscape after the Browns were moved to Baltimore. Many publicly played the "Cleveland card" in extorting grandiose new football palaces from their local taxpayers. If you want to know who profited from the betrayal of Cleveland fans, look there.
There has been a great deal of talk over the last day about what Modell meant to the NFL, what his legacy could have been, if only he had not betrayed Cleveland.
But that isn't the legacy that matters.
The legacy that matters to me is the way the City of Cleveland bonded together to fight back and reclaim their team, name, and colors, a battle unprecedented in the history of professional sports. That moment of civic unity against self-interest run amok is what we should remember today. It deserves to be celebrated, and not forgotten under an accumulating mound of revisionist history.
As much as we would like to put the entire Modell episode in the past, there are some useful things that Art Modell taught us.
LEARN WHEN IT IS TIME TO GO - Modell's reputation was destroyed in his waning years, long after he had contributed tremendously to the growth of the NFL. Had he sold his team in 1995 rather than hanging on, he would have been lionized in Cleveland as an owner and philanthropist. He would be in the Hall of Fame. His statue, not Al Lerner's, would adorn the Browns facility today.
As many athletes have shown us, the hardest thing to do is leave the stage. At the same time, we have seen over and over again that a refusal to do so tarnishes real accomplishment.
NFL OWNERS ARE U.S.A.'s EQUIVALENT OF ROYALTY - This is often said of celebrities, but I've felt that NFL owners are the real royalty in the USA. Like royalty, the title is often inherited; teams are handed down from parents to children.
Look at the AFC North, where only the Ravens have an owner who did not inherit the team from his father, and that only because bad planning meant that Art Modell couldn't pass the Browns on to David.
Unlike celebrities, a lack of popular success doesn't knock an NFL owner from his perch. They're even immune to popular revolt, as Mike Brown in Cincinnati shows. The NFL, clearly, likes it that way, with rules prohibiting future special cases like the Green Bay Packers' public ownership. With that as background, fans should expect future franchise moves as imperious NFL owners act based on self-interest, not civic responsibility. It's inevitable as NFL owners can rarely be held accountable for mismanagement.
THERE IS NO KARMA IN SPORTS - I learned this early in 2001, when the Baltimore Ravens became the most noxious Super Bowl Champions of all time. Not only was the team stolen from a fan base who had been starving for a winner for thirty years, but its roster was comprised of some of the most dubious characters in years, led by the infamous Ray Lewis. If higher powers are invested in sports, they were certainly absent from the scene in January 2001.
The good guys, it turns out, don't always win. Sometimes the bad guys do.
These are the lessons that I learned from Art Modell.
They are all that remains.
Follow Barry McBride on Twitter @BarryMcBride.
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