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Art Modell's polarizing legacy complicating Hall of Fame bid

Art Modell's impact on the NFL is shrouded in gray, but we've learned time and again that characters aren't really allowed to be complex when it comes to a kitschy plaque.

Rob Carr

As the Ravens prepare to take on the 49ers in Super Bowl 47, an entirely different fight is breaking out under the surface: does deceased former Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell belong in the Hall of Fame?

Modell was a polarizing figure, to say the least. That alone is sometimes enough to gather enough steam to make a Hall of Fame bid. What makes his case more unique than others - aside from the fact that a discussion this heated is usually reserved for NFL players - is the legend became bigger than the man as the echo chamber of sport has forced every pundit and writer onto one side of the fence or the other.

Art Modell did good things in the National Football League. Art Modell also did bad things in the National Football League. He was neither the villain some claim nor the fundamental pioneer that others trumpet him to be.

Plenty of well-thought arguments have been made one way or the other on Modell's Hall of Fame credentials. Naturally, those close to Art Modell, like Ozzie Newsome, feel he belongs. Friends come to bat for their friends.

Some Baltimore columnists, such as the Baltimore Sun's Peter Schmuck, rather than making the argument for why Modell deserves to be in, have taken it upon themselves to tell Cleveland to get over it (which, oddly enough, is the common response from other cities any time something bad happens to Cleveland as if grief and suffering has a convenient timeline that can be arbitrarily assigned regardless of the circumstances).

So, here's hoping that when Hall of Fame voters fill out their ballots next Saturday in New Orleans, enough of them put a check next to Modell's name to finally allow him -- at least in spirit -- to return to Ohio in triumph instead of ignominy.

Maybe, just maybe, enough time has passed for Clevelanders to let go of their anger and bitterness, let Modell rest in peace and allow their once-beloved franchise to mine every ounce of history and magic out of this unlikely Super Bowl run.

Letting it go simply isn't an option for some Browns fans.

To live in Cleveland, you wouldn't know the Super Bowl is happening this week at all. That's how much time has been devoted in the paper and on talk radio discussing the Modell Issue. Sweeping Modell's transgressions under the rug under the guise that he is ‘a good guy' and ‘helped the league' might be too Machiavellian to stomach. Writers like Tony Grossi feel they have to take up arms for Clevelanders. Grossi argues it's his responsibility to make Cleveland's case his case, even if doing so is painting with a broad brush that outright allows the ‘get over it' groundswell to flourish.

But there are Clevelanders like Jim Kanicki who have ‘let go of their anger and bitterness' and still make a compelling case for why the former Ravens née Browns owner should not be in Canton. And in a way, who knows the story of Modell better than Cleveland? Super Bowl in Baltimore aside, the majority of Art's big moments came in Northeast Ohio. Baltimore was a postscript in his career. An epilogue. A denouement.

Kanicki writes:

Here is the thesis: Art Modell was a corrupt and failed businessman without HOF credentials in the categories of football, business, or civic contribution¹.

This is not personal.
This is not vendetta.
This is not a bitter Browns fan with a grudge; this is specifically not sour grapes.

This is a factual review of Art Modell's career as owner of the Cleveland Browns.

There is nothing in his record the [sic] rises to the level of Hall-of-Famer. On the contrary, the record shows he did more to hurt than to help pro football.

I'm not originally from Cleveland. I moved from Cincinnati in '97. When I got here, there was no team. I've only been exposed to the Nouveau Browns, the Xerox copy that doesn't even resemble what I see on film from the old days. It's been hard for me to hate Modell since my heart was never ripped out like the Browns fans who have been here forever.

At the same time, I do resent him for taking away a storied franchise and leaving me with a team that has never been successful while Baltimore continues to be run with precision and foresight. My take is different, in some respects. The tragedy for me is not that the team was taken away; it is that the team was replaced with an inferior product while the Team That Used To Be The Browns is immensely successful.

Peter Pattakos, a Cleveland attorney and owner of Cleveland Frowns, recently dug up an old lawsuit against Modell, which includes quotes about Modell's constant assurances the team would not be moved, while including evidence (including notes from Bill Belichick's personal notebook) that the deal was completed long before it was announced.

Pattakos sees the case for Art Modell in the Hall of Fame as no case at all, stressing the importance of civic responsibility. If individuals making the case for Modell praise his generosity in the public sector and his importance as a community leader, then his destruction of a city whose overall malaise is so intrinsically tied to its sports teams is more than just a black mark on his resume, it disproves the theorem entirely.

"For various reasons," Pattakos said, "significant ones relating to Cleveland's former (pre-Chicago-being-a-City-days) status as the country's way station for the industrial economy, the city has been ground zero for the tug of war that America's losing between professional sports franchising being public trusts (like they used to be) or fancy toys for the super rich (like they're increasingly and hopefully not irreversibly becoming)."

And that's the other issue at play here. To expect the people who were most closely affected by Modell's decisions to get over it or have no opinion at all and to separate the man's most deplorable act from the rest of his tenure is almost as impossible as painting him as 'in' or 'out' in the first place. A city's most beloved franchise was left in ruins, millions of people were hurt and are still embittered to this day. This didn't just set a dangerous precedent for an owner holding a city hostage which already bent over backwards for its sports franchises in the first place; it made it okay. There's an argument to be made that those who said Modell 'did what he had to do' are simply missing the point.

Art Modell certainly impacted the NFL in a number of ways. Whether or not those ways were ultimately positive enough to land him in Canton is still up for debate, and Modell's complicated legacy is stuck wearing what @CelebrityHotTub described as a ‘gray hat.'

But as we've learned time and again, men and women are not allowed to be complex individuals when it comes to a kitschy plaque.

For more Cleveland Browns info, head over to the Dawgs By Nature.