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HOF 2010: Art Modell

Posted by Chase Stuart on December 16, 2009

Previous HOF 2010 Bios: John Randle; Roger Craig; Russ Grimm; Steve Tasker; Aeneas Williams.

There will be two groups of people who will immediately stand in the way of Art Modell's entry into the Hall of Fame. Many people don't want to see a coach, owner, or contributor selected when there are deserving players being passed over; it rubs some people the wrong way to select a nonfootball player over a football player for induction. The HOF votes in no greater than 5 modern era candidates in a year, so it becomes a numbers game. The other group of people who rally against Modell are Browns fans and sympathizers. Understandably.

So for those who want Modell to make the HOF, what can they hang their hats on? Below are some of the highlights of Modell's NFL career.

  • He was the only elected NFL President, serving from 1967 to 1969. His crowning achievement during that span came in 1968, when as Chairman of the Owners Labor Committee, he successfully negotiated the NFL’s first players’ collective bargaining agreement.
  • He served on the NFL-AFL Merger Committee, breaking the impasse for realignment of the two leagues by agreeing to move his Browns to the American Football Conference.
  • Modell was constantly looking for innovative ways to help make the league more successful. Some of them, like Modell's idea to host doubleheaders in Cleveland Stadium, didn't stick. Others helped shape the future of the league. Modell served as the NFL's broadcast chairman for 31 years, and was instrumental in aligning the NFL and television. Modell strongly pushed for the NFL to play football on Monday nights, worked closely with ABC, and eventually had his team play in and host the first MNF game ever. He also agreed to be the opponent in the first ever Thanksgiving Day doubleheader; the Lions had been playing on Thanksgiving ever since they moved to Detroit in 1934, but beginning in 1966, football in Dallas would become a Turkey Day tradition, too.
  • Modell worked with Commissioner Rozelle to help create the tremendous NFL films; Modell would become its first chairman.
  • For what it's worth, he and Al Davis were the only two owners who voted against Robert Irsay's decision to move the Colts from Baltimore to Indianapolis. And, of course, Modell brought football back to Baltimore, a terrific football city in its own right. As much as Clevelanders hate him, Baltimoreans love him.
  • Modell was well respected by his fellow owners. John Mara, speaking of the Ravens Super Bowl victory over his Giants, recalled: "As painful as it was to lose a Super Bowl, I remember sitting with my father, who said, 'If I had to lose to someone, I'm glad it was Art."
  • Before hoards of draft picks and proven players were given up for the rights to select college stars such as Eli Manning, Ryan Leaf, Ricky Williams, Jeff George, Irving Fryar, John Elway or Earl Campbell, there was Art Modell. He made the blockbuster trade for the first black Heisman Trophy winner and #1 pick in the '62 draft, Ernie Davis. The Browns traded eventual Hall of Famer Bobby Mitchell, but Davis was the power back the Browns loved. Teaming Davis with Jim Brown, Modell said, "would have been the greatest backfield in the history of the NFL. We would have surpassed the Paul Hornung-Jim Taylor backfield for the old Green Bay Packers. We would have been better than that." When Davis died of leukemia before ever playing a down for the Browns, Modell flew players, coaches, reporters, photographers and front office personnel to upstate New York for Davis' funeral. The Browns retired Davis' #45, and no one has worn that number since.
  • After drafting Ozzie Newsome the player, Modell made Ozzie Newsome the first black GM in NFL history.

What about the big elephant in the room? There's no denying that Modell's lasting legacy may not be any of the above, but rather will be his decision to take the Browns out of Cleveland. But if Modell is indeed enshrined into the HOF, his decision to move his football team wouldn't put him in rare company. There are currently 10 men in the Pro Football HOF who were inducted primarily because of their accomplishments as owners or founders. Five of them -- Art and Dan Rooney, Ralph Wilson, Jr., Tim and Wellington Mara -- come from three families, and are synonymous with football in Pittsburgh, Buffalo and New York. Of course, Wellington Mara took his team from the Bronx 70 miles northeast to New Haven, Connecticut for two seasons, then back another 70 miles to Queens for a one-year pit-stop, before finally crossing two more rivers and landing permanently in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

The other owners in the Hall made more Modell-like moves. Dan Reeves, the owner of the Rams, also robbed Cleveland of its football team and relocated in Los Angeles. Al Davis, owner of the Oakland Raiders, also took his team to L.A., before bringing them back to Oakland. The great Lamar Hunt moved his championship franchise from Dallas to Kansas City. George Preston Marshall, in addition to being openly racist even for his era, took his team from Boston to D.C. and renamed them the Redskins. Charles Bidwill was the owner of the Chicago Cardinals for 15 seasons, and while his team stayed put during his lifetimes, the Cardinals would move to St. Louis and then to Arizona under his family's ownership. Moving football teams is never fun, but it is a part of NFL history. On the other hand, the Browns were arguably the most storied franchise to ever leave behind its fanbase.

Modell's decision to move the Browns from Cleveland was a complicated one. At the time, some thought Modell was an evil, incompetent owner who robbed one of the greatest fanbases of one of the league's legendary franchises. Others thought the city of Cleveland wronged Modell several times over, and Modell did what any prudent owner would have done. Several years ago I read Fumble: The Browns, Modell, & the Move, a terrific book that documents the detailed history between Modell and Cleveland. I don't recall many of the specifics anymore, but I came away (I think) with the impression that Cleveland was wrong, Modell was wrong, and it was just an unfortunate situation that kept spiraling out of control. As time passes, only the loud voices remain, and the most vocal historians of that time period are (understandably) angry Browns fans. Even if the City of Cleveland deserved more blame than Modell, Browns fans had football stolen from them, and will never forgive Modell for what happened. Should that be enough to keep him out of the Hall of Fame?

Ultimately, I think I side more with argument #1 for keeping Modell out of the Hall of Fame than argument #2. I'll always have a tough time keeping a deserving NFL player out for a year to get in a contributor. But I think Modell qualifies as what a Hall of Famer should be. Even if you didn't know what Modell's role was, it would be impossible to discuss the history of the NFL without mentioning the AFL-NFL merger, Monday Night Football, the collective bargaining agreement or NFL Films. Modell's fingerprints are all over NFL history.

Chances he'll make the HOF in 2010? Very low.
Chances he'll ever make the HOF? Low.
Chances he'll be posthumously inducted, after the Browns win a Super Bowl: A whole lot better than his chances are of making it beforehand.