Instead of the customary shower of dog biscuits, jagged chunks of ice rained onto the Cleveland Stadium turf late Sunday afternoon from the Dawg Pound, the end zone section that for years has been the province of the Cleveland Browns' most rabid fans. The Pound's "tough love" had turned mean-spirited as missiles that could tear a hole in a person's scalp landed near security guards and Cleveland police positioned on the field. The Dawgs were upset not only that the Houston Oilers were in the process of crushing the Browns 37-10 but also because they had learned a day earlier that owner Art Modell had entered into an agreement to move his team, a Cleveland institution for 50 years, to Baltimore.
Rot in hell Modell read one of the many hate-filled end zone signs. As the clock wound down, someone lobbed a firecracker into the end zone. Then the old stadium resounded with impromptu chants—mean, threatening, crotch-grabbing imprecations directed at the 70-year-old owner. Except that he was not there to hear them; anticipating anger that might turn to violence, Modell had stayed away from his regular seat for the first time in the 34 years that he has owned the team.
In the middle of the end zone mob stood John Thompson, a 34-year-old computer-parts salesman, who, as the unofficial leader of the Pound, always wore an oversized, floppy dog mask. On Sunday he wore no mask, only a long face. "You wouldn't wear a dog mask to your brother's funeral, would you?" he said sadly.
After the game the unrest continued. At the 64-year-old stadium, fans can stand in the concourse just outside a door that opens to a hallway leading to the Browns' locker room. If that door and the locker room door are both open, the players and coaches can hear the crowd milling on the concourse. Fifteen minutes after the Oiler rout, about 50 angry fans gathered there, screaming epithets whenever the doors were open. "Give us Modell!" one of them shouted. "Bring us Modell!"
Having spent the upsetting afternoon watching from the Cleveland sideline, former Brown great Jim Brown, now an adviser to the team, likened the surrealistic day to another horrible November afternoon, in 1963. "It's like the game we had to play after Kennedy got killed," he said.
With little warning a disturbing era has begun in the NFL. Call it the Franchise Free-Agency Era. On Monday, Modell and Maryland officials, including Governor Parris Glendening and Baltimore mayor Kurt Schmoke, formally announced at a press conference in the parking lot at Camden Yards that the storied Brown franchise would move to Baltimore after this season. And late this week Oiler owner Bud Adams is expected to sign an agreement in principle to begin play in Nashville by 1998, if Tennessee officials can meet certain financial goals by March 1996.
In the meantime Cleveland city officials were desperately trying to keep the Browns from relocating. A Cleveland delegation headed by Mayor Michael White flew to New York City on Sunday and met with NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, claiming that Modell had turned his back on loyal Cleveland fans to sign a secret agreement with Baltimore on Oct. 27. On Monday, White sought a restraining order barring the Browns from moving. While the league may sympathize with Cleveland's fans, it is virtually powerless to stop Modell or any other owner from moving his team. Even though an NFL rule states that 23 of the 30 team owners must approve a franchise shift before it can take place, a 1982 court decision that confirmed the Raiders' right to move from Oakland to Los Angeles established that the league has no legal authority to enforce the rule.
Since the completion of the NFL-AFL merger in 1970 four franchises have moved (the Oakland Raiders have done so twice). At the time those moves were announced, none of the teams involved had drawn as well as the Browns have since they began play in the old All-America Football Conference in 1946. After joining the NFL in 1950, Cleveland immediately became the league's dominant team for the next 15 years, appearing in nine title games and eventually putting 13 players into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Even though at week's end the Browns were 38-51 in the 1990s, their average attendance since 1990 (70,407) is fourth in the league.
Consequently the Browns' move is far more disconcerting than the departure of the Cardinals from St. Louis to Phoenix in 1988 or even the Colts' deserting Baltimore for Indianapolis four years earlier. It is stunning because Modell, a Brooklyn high school dropout, has always been the ultimate team player among NFL owners. As the league's chief TV negotiator for three decades, he closed deals with the networks totaling $8.4 billion. Modell could always be counted on to do whatever was necessary to benefit the entire league, including giving up old rivalries and shifting to the AFC to help strengthen that conference in 1970. He believed what was good for the league was good for his beloved Browns, who haven't won an NFL title since 1964. "I'd give up 10 years off my life to get to a Super Bowl," he told SI last year.
Modell, who owns 51% of the Browns, is one of a handful of remaining owners whose primary source of income is their team, which is, oddly, one of the reasons he was compelled to move the Browns. "I don't own oil wells or shopping malls like some owners," Modell has said. "Football is my only business."