Bob Costas, one of the sports world's most eloquent voices, used one of pop culture's biggest stages to argue for Art Modell's place in pro football's Hall of Fame Sunday.
Here's what Costas said during halftime of NBC's Sunday Night opener between the Denver Broncos and Pittsburgh Steelers. NBC's Sunday night games are the highest rated series on American prime-time television with as many as 20 million viewers a week.
As you've heard, Art Modell, the longtime owner of the Cleveland Browns, and then the Baltimore Ravens, died Thursday at the age of 87. Modell's rich and impactful life began in Brooklyn, where he grew up. With that background, he no doubt understood the lasting enmity toward Walter O'Malley, the owner who moved Brooklyn's beloved Dodgers to Los Angeles. Teams – especially certain teams – can get tied up in people's hearts and in the identity of a city.
The original Cleveland Browns were such a team. With a deep and dramatic history, a devoted fan base, a distinctive character, they were one of the league's true flagship franchises. So when Modell up and transplanted them to Baltimore, he became his sport's – and his generation's – Walter O'Malley. Whatever his justifications, what Modell did to Cleveland far outweighed whatever he had done for it. Long before Lebron James, he was Cleveland's public enemy #1, persona non grata for the rest of his life, in a town that had once loved him.
That's a lasting part of Modell's story, but even if this falls on deaf ears in Cleveland, it's not the only part because here's what else is true: For decades, Art Modell was one of the most significant and influential figures in the NFL, a chief architect of the television deals and strategies that made it America's most popular and profitable sport.
From his earliest days in the league a half century ago, Modell was a progressive on racial issues – his hiring of Ozzie Newsome as the league's first black GM, only one indication. He was well known for his philanthropy and for his winning way with a story or a joke, and to the end, he was a man who treated players and employees like family.
In truth, there's a case to be made for Art Modell in the Hall of Fame and if that ever happens, maybe one day, in an ultimate proof of the adage that time heals all wounds, at least some Browns fans will decide that, that all things considered, Art Modell belongs, if not in Cleveland, then in Canton.