The “complicated” legacy of Art Modell is a reminder to fans of just where we stand
By the time Art Modell passed away last week at the age of 87, he had spent nearly half of his years on earth as an NFL owner, first of the Cleveland Browns and then of their reincarnation as the Baltimore Ravens. By nearly all media analyses, his legacy is a “complicated” one. Modell is largely credited with bringing football to cities across the country and into every TV-owner’s home, making it more popular than baseball. He delivered NFL championships to Cleveland after the 1964 season and to Baltimore 36 years later. Yet, of course, he also left an entire Browns fan base bereft and feeling helpless as they watched their team disappear (for the time being) in 1995. Although Modell was known among players and reporters to be approachable, friendly, and funny, he still became the butt of jokes about NFL owners’ greed and heartlessness (especially on The Drew Carey Show).
For football fans, this reflecting on Modell’s role is uncomfortable because it reinforces an awkward truth. We love to take pride of ownership in our favorite team; but every once in awhile, like now, we are harshly reminded that—besides some t-shirts, jerseys, Zubaz pants, a football-shaped tailgating grill, and perhaps a pair of season tickets or NFL Sunday Ticket subscription—technically we own nothing.* Just last year, when a labor dispute and lockout shut down the NFL for 132 days and threatened the 2011 season, our constituency was noticeably left out of any negotiations.
*Yes, even you, Green Bay Packers fans: have you read the fine print on that certificate of “common stock” you so proudly purchased? You basically made a donation to the team without getting the tax break.
As much as we debate the merits of coaches, quarterbacks, and draft picks—whose talents we can celebrate and whose disappointments we know we will ultimately outlast—we realize our team’s long-term fortunes fall back on the owners, those autocrats of the NFL that we sometimes love and far more often love to hate.
While men like Robert Kraft, Art Rooney, and Lamar Hunt have been lionized for their contributions to the game and to their communities, even the “evil” and eccentric owners make life interesting: Al Davis, whose mantra was “Just win, baby…or your fired.” Jerry Jones, whose team’s fans can’t fault him for a lack of spending, even if it is on the world’s largest flat-screen TV. Daniel Snyder, who famously responded to a newspaper’s criticism of his quirks and crankiness with a lawsuit. Like in any good story, there are good guys and bad guys. Many, like Modell, have been both.
You can, of course, evaluate owners not just by how good their team is, but by how much good they do. Charitable foundations and community initiatives are swell—so long as the team is winning.
You can rank owners the way Forbes does, giving as much weight to dollars as to wins. John Mara and Steve Tisch, for example, have seen the value of their New York Giants grow by 33 percent since they took over the team from their fathers.* Oh, and they’ve overseen the Giants’ third and fourth Super Bowl victories, too.
*Despite the success of the Maras and Tisches or, say, Art Rooney’s son, Dan, that’s another source of fan angst: primogeniture. While the NFL is a meritocracy in almost every other way, a few current owners who are unproven at best sit on inherited thrones. Yes, you, Clark Hunt.
Putting up big numbers on the scoreboard and on the balance sheet are by no means mutually exclusive goals; a winning team, with a growing fan base and skyrocketing ticket and paraphernalia sales, should be more valuable. But some owners operate according to Ben Franklin’s wisdom—a million saved is a million earned—and think it’s okay if production drops so long as costs drop more (and the luxury suites are still full).
This Sunday, every NFL team paused for moment to honor Art Modell’s memory—except one. Modell’s son David requested that the Cleveland Browns forego the tribute so as to avoid a potential backlash from still-bitter Browns fans.
At least—and it is the least he could do—Art Modell agreed to leave the Browns’ name and uniforms behind when he took his team to Maryland. As someone without a direct emotional connection to either city, I have trouble completely vilifying the fans of Baltimore,* who for the previous 13 years had had to endure the ignominy of watching their Colts, wearing their colors, take the field in Indianapolis, the capital of a basketball state. Even a Ravens blowout win in Super Bowl XXXV could not completely fill the hole the Colts left in Baltimore’s heart.
*On the other hand, I have no trouble vilifying Baltimore’s current team, whose defense has lead the league in sacks, points allowed, and attempted-murder charges, a stat I have not confirmed but that feels true.
So as another NFL season gets underway, most fans will continue to judge each owner by how much he or she is willing to do to put a winning team on the field. The “winning” and the “how much” are important, but the essential element is “on the field”—as in, on our field. If you build it, so long as you build it here—even if you strong-arm our local government into taxing us to build it—we will come. Or at the very least, we will stay home and watch. The NFL is just too popular to ignore. Folks like Art Modell made sure of that.
That’s the “complicated” position of being a fan. Though they should, we know our teams’ proprietors don’t really need to earn our loyalty. They already own it.