The death of former Ravens owner Art Modell has unleashed a flood of warm memories in Baltimore, but Modell is a more complicated figure for many people, who struggle to forgive him for moving his franchise from Cleveland.
That conflicted sensibility lies at the heart of Modell's inability to get into the Pro Football Hall of Fame despite his 43-year legacy as an owner and shaper of the league's television dynasty. And voters say it's not at all clear that his death will improve his chances.
"His candidacy has faded the more people think about the Cleveland experience," said Newsday columnist and Hall of Fame voter Bob Glauber. "When you rip a franchise out by its roots, especially one with that kind of history and rabid fan base, it just makes it almost impossible to put him in that spot. I can't get past it."
Ravens officials — from owner Steve Bisciotti to general manager Ozzie Newsome to coach John Harbaugh — have long campaigned for Modell's entry to the Hall in Canton, Ohio. As officials from around the sports world reflected on his legacy Thursday, many joined the chorus.
Former NBC Sports Chairman Dick Ebersol described Modell as "one of the most important figures in the history of the modern NFL."
"I am so saddened with one thing," Ebersol said. "Art did not get to experience an induction into the Hall of Fame. The leaders in Cleveland, when he moved to Baltimore, put Art in an untenable situation and left him with the hard choice of moving. That scarred some people on Art. I hope in death Art is placed where he should be — in Canton in the Hall of Fame."
Modell made a list of 15 finalists for the Hall in 2001 but was not selected. Modell's candidacy has not even gained that level of traction in recent years. He generally makes the list of 26 semi-finalists — he did not in November of 2011 — but advances no farther.
His death will have no technical impact on the process of considering his candidacy. Any change would have to occur in the hearts and minds of voters.
"I would hope the fact that he's being talked about, that's he's in the spotlight like this, will put him more in the front row," said Baltimore broadcaster Scott Garceau, who's going into his ninth year as the city's representative on the Hall of Fame selection committee.
Garceau has long advocated for Modell's entry along with a few other staunch supporters such as USA Today's Jarrett Bell and former Washington Post columnist Leonard Shapiro. But Modell has never even made it to the final discussion during Garceau's voting tenure.
The bitter feelings from Cleveland are part of the problem, Garceau said, but perhaps a lesser factor than fans assume.
"A bigger issue is that a lot of voters have a hard time picking a contributor over a player," he said. "I don't think a person from one city getting up and giving a presentation against him is enough to have kept him out. It's more complicated than that."
The selection process in football is more arcane than the straight vote conducted for the Baseball Hall of Fame. A group of 44 media members — one representing each of the NFL's 32 teams, 11 at-large delegates and one representing the Pro Football Writers of America — picks the honorees at a closed-door meeting just before the Super Bowl. A candidate needs 80 percent support to make it.
Given the privacy of the meeting, it's hard to get a grip on why certain candidates rise and fall.
Longtime Browns beat writer Tony Grossi, who works for ESPNCleveland, is the voter most associated with Modell's struggle to gain entry. Reached by e-mail Thursday, Grossi offered gracious words about Modell's complicated legacy. But he added: "I am not going to get into a public debate on Art's Hall of Fame candidacy outside the confines of the board of selectors meeting room."
Several other voters said they're unsure if Modell's death will help his cause.
"There is no doubt Art Modell left a huge imprint on the NFL.," Chicago Tribune writer Dan Pompei said. "But I think there is also no doubt that some people hold it against him that he left Cleveland without a football team. I'm not sure if his passing will change minds about him, but his career certainly is worthwhile of re-examination."
To get a sense of Cleveland's attitude on the subject, consider that Browns fans maintain a Facebook page called "Keep Art Modell Out of the Hall of Fame." As of Thursday morning, 4,191 "liked" the site, and the comments about Modell's death were unforgiving.
Several league officials, however, urged voters to look past such emotion and consider the breadth of Modell's contributions.
Joe Browne, the longest-tenured employee in the NFL's league office, remembered Modell as an influential member of late former commissioner Pete Rozelle's tight circle of advisers. "Ironically, Art is the only member of that group who is not enshrined in Canton," Browne said. "Hopefully, the Hall of Fame media selectors will rectify that oversight in the near future — not as an emotional reaction to Art's death, but as a rightful reflection of his longtime contributions to the NFL."
Supporters also include former commissioner Paul Tagliabue and current team owners.
"Art Modell was one of the greatest owners in the history of the NFL," said New York Giants president and CEO John Mara. "He contributed in so many ways to the success of this league, and he deserves a place in Canton."