Art Modell, a man well known to long-time National Football League fans, especially those from Ohio, passed away last Thursday at the age of 87. He was foundational in the growth of the NFL both as a league and as the entertainment juggernaut it is today. But even as they read this, Cleveland Browns fans are either wincing or gnashing their teeth. They knew Modell as a traitor, a Benedict Arnold, even a thief. His death marks the passing of an NFL icon, a pioneer, and more than a bit of a pariah.
In 1961 Modell purchased the Cleveland Browns, and in his first 10 years of being owner, he changed the landscape of football forever. He helped establish the first collective bargaining agreement, creating a fabric for the NFL's finances that still exists. Then came one of his greatest accomplishments, and certainly the one we can most easily recognize today. In 1970, along with the legendary league commissioner Pete Rozelle, Modell helped to push through the contract between the NFL and ABC for what we still know today as Monday Night Football. It's safe to say that the NFL we love to watch on TV wouldn't exist without Art Modell.
But 1996 is a year that will forever stick in the craw of Northern Ohio residents. Cleveland was a championship-starved and snakebit sports city (and still is). But unbeknownst to the long-suffering fans, Modell was secretly reaching a deal to move their beloved Browns to Baltimore because of his financial situation. It ripped the soul out of a diehard fan base. He stole their team right out from under their noses. To this day Art Modell is roundly cursed in Cuyahoga County. Even the 1998 introduction of a new Cleveland Browns team via expansion hasn't done much to dull the hatred.
More than just a big businessman, though, his players knew him as a great man. Hall of Fame tight end Shannon Sharpe said, "He showed real concern. But, it wasn't just me. He knew the practice squad players' names. He treated them the same." Current all-pro linebacker Ray Lewis described Modell this way: "Every minute of his life, he cared more about everyone around him than himself. … I genuinely loved Art as a man, and he showed me what to strive for in life. … He was a humble servant, and one of the best men I have ever known."
Now he is gone. What are we to make of a man who simultaneously inspired loathing and love? I suppose we are to remember that he was but a man. His life was marked by profound common grace, which enabled such pivotal successes. And his life was marked by the failure inherent to all men. Art Modell was a complex mix of good and bad, of grace and greed. And in this he was not so different than you or I.