Lifelong service to pro football should land Modell spot in Hall

NEW ORLEANS -- If Ravens owner Art Modell is not selected for Hall of Fame induction on Saturday, it would be an affront to the man, the game and the NFL.

He deserves to be enshrined as much as any player or other administrator/owner, including Tex Schramm, Al Davis, Wellington Mara and Art and Dan Rooney.

For most of his 41 years as owner of the Cleveland Browns and Ravens, Modell has been a league guy and a Mr. Insider whose deals helped turn football into the most popular of all American sports.

The Hall of Fame status would be justified.

The critics will point to Modell moving one of the league's most storied franchises from Cleveland to Baltimore in 1996, but that was justified and becomes less significant as the new Browns develop, and the league continues to flourish from Modell's past contributions.

"I certainly think he belongs in the Hall of Fame," said Mara, a league pioneer and owner of the New York Giants. "I don't know a person who has done more for the league than Art Modell, especially through television."

The next time you see the sights and hear the sounds of the NFL coming into your living-room TV, thank Modell. Thank him for Monday Night Football, and for NFL Films. League owners also can thank him for strongly advocating profit-sharing, which is why the NFL has parity and Major League Baseball is slowly dying.

As chairman of the NFL's television committee for 32 years before retiring in 1993, Modell was a key figure in deals that have brought more than $10 billion to the league office.

The other was the late commissioner, Pete Rozelle. He is in the Hall of Fame.

"The league has suffered ever since he left the committee," Mara said of Modell. "His biggest contribution was the knowledge of TV, and he put it to work for the league."

That's what the voting should be about. Modell's achievements dramatically outweigh any possible indiscretion. The resume is impressive. He broke the NFL-AFL impasse by agreeing to be one of two teams to move to the AFC along with the Steelers, and he was chairman of the owners' labor committee, which successfully negotiated the league's first collective bargaining agreement in 1968.

He has been a ground-breaker, too.

He is the only elected NFL president in league history, serving from 1967 through 1969, and believed to be the only owner to have had three African-Americans working in high-ranking, front-office positions at one time in John Wooten, James Harris and Ozzie Newsome.

"We laughed at some of the things he used to come up with, like doubleheader preseason games and the TV deals," Mara said. "But look how they turned out."

That's what needs to be remembered Saturday, not just the Browns' move. There were a lot of similarities between the Cleveland move and the Colts' leaving Baltimore in 1984.

In both cases, the stadiums were dumps. Both teams had gone through losing seasons, and government and team officials made promises they didn't keep. But unlike Baltimore, Cleveland had built a new baseball stadium, a new basketball arena and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, while ignoring the Browns. Modell went through league channels, unlike Colts owner Robert Irsay, who left during the midnight hour in a snowstorm.

Irsay took the Colts' colors and name with him. Modell left the heritage in Cleveland despite league officials who suggested he hold onto the legacy as a possible bargaining weapon in court.

"When I first heard about the Browns leaving Cleveland, it was like someone slicing me through the heart," said Wooten, a former Cleveland guard in the 1960s and '70s. "But now when I see John Unitas, Lenny Moore or Tom Matte, I realize what it meant for the heritage to stay in Cleveland. Those guys are lost."

Time will heal the wounds in Cleveland, just as it has done in Baltimore. Modell's move worked out for the league, which got new stadiums in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Tennessee. Even Cleveland.

But maybe the move won't come into play. Davis has a Hall of Fame bust, and he moved twice.

There is more to the legacy of Modell than a move. He got involved in the Cleveland community, serving on the boards of directors at Baldwin-Wallace College and the world-renowned Cleveland Clinic for 20 years.

He has always been compassionate, and that, maybe more than anything, has gotten him in trouble over the years. Does he overspend? Yes, he is one of the few bosses who feeds his employees, not just the players, three meals a day. He gave former coach Bill Belichick and player personnel chief Mike Lombardi an open wallet for free agency in Cleveland, which led to enormous debt.

But he has gone overboard in trying to help troubled players like Bam Morris and Larry Webster. The loyalty just doesn't end on the field.

"I just got a letter from the Browns' alumni association the other day, and found out Eddie Johnson [a former Browns linebacker] has cancer," said Newsome, the Ravens' senior vice president of football operations. "I showed the letter to Art, and the first thing he asked me was what he could do to help."

The passion for the game and the league has always been there. Here's a man who, at age 76, still attends most of the Ravens' practices. In the past, critics argued that Modell didn't belong in the Hall of Fame because he didn't win a Super Bowl.

The Ravens won one for him last season, and Modell's teams have had 24 winning seasons. His Browns won an NFL championship in 1964, reached league title games in 1965, '68 and '69 and appeared in three AFC championship games (1986, '87 and '89).

Only one thing is missing. It may have to come this year because the class is weak, and the only certain inductee seems to be quarterback Jim Kelly. The next few Hall of Fame classes will be loaded.

"He was sinned against more in Cleveland than he sinned," Mara said. "If inducted, there would be a certain amount of vindication because his lifelong service wouldn't be marred by what some people call an indiscretion."