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Take it from Jim Brown, visionary Modell one of NFL's greatest owners

by | NFL Insider
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Modell was instrumental in growing the NFL's popularity with lucrative TV deals. (AP)  
Modell was instrumental in growing the NFL's popularity with lucrative TV deals. (AP)  

"Art Modell doesn't deserve an asterisk by his name. He deserves the Hall of Fame."

That was Jim Brown, some years ago, in the same breath declining to be interviewed for a book I was writing on his life, while making sure the legacy of Modell was recognized and protected.

"Art was a visionary," Brown said, his voice rising, almost to anger. "He is one of the smartest men I've ever known. There was no one like him and I mean no one."

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There were times when the two men's relationship dripped with contempt only to later morph into respect and, yes, one of love. The greatest running back of all time loved Modell, and maybe the greatest owner ever loved Brown like a son. Brown said in an interview with Sirius radio on Thursday that Modell once gave Brown a personal loan during some tough financial times in Brown's life.

The visionary Modell was instrumental in forging football's Monday night beachhead, as well as bringing the league's games to cable TV. Cable television was in its toddler years and still not completely trusted by the NFL, largely because network television had three times the viewers of cable. Modell would bridge this gap and convince NFL owners cable was a place for football. This was not an easy argument. Few thought it would work.

On March 15, 1987, several months or so before ESPN became the first cable network to reach 40 million homes, Modell was the primary force that convinced the NFL to award ESPN a three-year deal to televise eight regular-season Sunday night games, four preseason games and the Pro Bowl. That year, the Dec. 6 telecast of Minnesota hosting Chicago was watched by 8.42 million people, a cable record at the time.

This is a truth: Modell was one of two or three founding fathers for the sport. Despite his flaws, despite his ugly and unnecessary move from Cleveland to Baltimore, no amount of hatred for him can wipe out that historic fact.

"Art Modell was one of the greatest owners in the history of the NFL," said the Giants' John Mara. "We will miss him dearly."

Modell was chairman of the television committee for 31 years and in that role he helped to shape the game you watch today -- how it looks, how it's produced, how it's distributed.

It is understood how many in the city of Cleveland will always hate Modell the way some there will always be hate for LeBron James. Modell abandoned that city, it is true, and there is no avoiding that ugly fact.

No one is asking anyone to forget that regrettable maneuver, but in these moments it would be equally ignorant to ignore his Hall of Fame life.

There is a mixed legacy, but in the end, Modell's grand accomplishment of modernizing the sport, and seeing in his visions what it could become when no one else did, eclipses anything else.

Modell was an owner for 40 years. He did more than negotiate what were the ridiculously lucrative TV deals that served as the primary force for the NFL becoming so powerful. He was president of the NFL for two years in the 1960s and was a key component in the discussions for the first collective bargaining agreement between the league and its players. He pushed for integration in the locker room and hired a black man as general manager when teams were still avoiding doing so.

And though as a Marylander, there is always a twinge of guilt that my state and city stole another NFL team, it cannot be overstated just how much Modell was loved -- L-O-V-E-D -- by the city of Baltimore and the entire state. The juxtaposition of emotions in Cleveland and Baltimore has always been striking.

When Modell was healthy and still heavily involved in running the Ravens, we spoke once or twice a week. The last few times we talked, I remember him being bitter over what he saw as an attempt by a small number of Cleveland-based journalists to keep him out of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Whenever I asked, "Don't you understand why you're so hated in Cleveland," his response would go on for five minutes. He'd list all of the charitable things he did for Cleveland, how the politicians screwed him, how the Browns as an organization contributed so much to the city. How he was forced out of the city. Why couldn't Browns fans remember those things instead, he'd ask?

He knew the answer. The question was always rhetorical. The move to Baltimore didn't just burn bridges, there was napalm used. Historical, un-erasable, napalm. There was no turning back, no rationalizing that decision. He made it. He had to live with it and now his legacy does, too.

Yet that is not all of Modell. It is part of him. There is so much more.

No, Art Modell doesn't deserve an asterisk by his name. He deserves the Hall of Fame.

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