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The Heart Of a City
Steve Rushin
December 04, 1995
Cleveland won Round 1 in what will be an agonizing battle to hold on to its beloved Browns
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December 04, 1995

The Heart Of A City

Cleveland won Round 1 in what will be an agonizing battle to hold on to its beloved Browns

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Amid all the confusion concerning their future, the Cleveland Browns issued a statement last week. It was clear, concise and unequivocal: We are not moving to Baltimore.

"In fact, we are trying to move back to Cleveland," says Cleveland Brown, a Cleveland native whose father, grandfather and great-grandfather were also named Cleveland Brown, and whose 13-year-old son is named Cleveland Brown as well. The 38-year-old nuclear medicine technician now lives in Middletown, Ohio. "And, no," he says, "my son and I are not changing our names to Baltimore Brown, though I get asked that 14 times a day."

Of course, the other Cleveland Browns—the football team—are planning a move to Baltimore. And what the Cleveland Brown family asks of the Cleveland Brown franchise is this: When you go, leave your once noble name in Ohio. "I'm not much of a football fan," says Cleveland Brown, "but when the Browns said they were moving, it really affected me. Not because of my name, but because for 50 years support for that team by the people of Cleveland has been phenomenal." And that, of course, is what makes this particular move so extraordinary. And so extraordinarily sad.

On Nov. 6, at a press conference in Baltimore, Brown owner Art Modell announced his intention to move his team to Maryland next season. Says Ron Brienes, a radio host at Cleveland's WHK, "I have to believe that he didn't anticipate what the response would be."

That is a howling understatement. Advertisers quickly pulled all their ads from Cleveland Stadium; nearly all of the coaches' and players' TV and radio programs were summarily canceled; and 24 hours a day, throughout the metropolis—in the airport, outside the convention center, above one of the city's busiest intersections—electronic message boards flash STOP ART MODELL, like those public-service ads that urge the citizenry to STOP TEEN PREGNANCY Or STOP V.D.

But Clevelanders had only begun their collective impersonation of a spurned lover. Last Friday, Judge Kenneth Callahan of Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court granted the city a preliminary injunction that may ultimately lead to Modell's being required to adhere to the terms of a contract he signed with the city back in 1973, an agreement that was intended to bind the Browns to Cleveland through the '98 season (box, page 64). Modell had apparently assumed he could liberate himself from Cleveland by canceling the contract that he, as the majority owner of the Browns, had signed with the stadium company, of which he controls nearly all. He was mistaken. In his ruling Callahan cited a remarkably prescient clause in the '73 contract that gives the city the right to veto any cancellation of that lease.

Modell will almost certainly appeal Callahan's ruling to the state's appellate court, where his chances of success are not good. Modell's next appeal will be to the Ohio supreme court, and if he loses there, he and the city will go to trial in a Cleveland courtroom in early spring. If a jury finds that the Browns are obligated to fulfill the terms of their lease, Modell will find himself in the unenviable position of owning a team in a city he cannot visit. Henceforth, Modell will appear publicly in Cleveland only as an effigy. He has fled his Tudor-style mansion in suburban Waite Hill and is living in exile at his condominium in West Palm Beach, Fla. "In one stroke he has torn down everything he ever did," wrote Bill Livingston in the Cleveland Plain Dealer last week. "He has wasted 35 years, exactly half his life." And that would be sadness enough for one story.

But sadder yet is the pain he has inflicted on thousands of others who have involuntarily lost something forever. And make no mistake: Whether Cleveland keeps the Browns for three strange years or receives another franchise in the future, things are unlikely to ever be the same again in this old Rust Belt city. "What I have now are 18 years of memories in my basement," says the Big Dawg, 34-year-old John Thompson, leader of the Browns' famous Dawg Pound cheering section. "At least there's no way Modell can touch them. Screw him."

That's exactly what Cleveland has decided to do: Screw the man who screwed it. At least nine other lawsuits have been filed by fan groups and ticket holders against the Browns, and Mayor Michael White has adopted the slogan "No team, no peace." As he surveyed his city from a law office on the 49th floor of the Society Center, White invoked his municipal mantra. "I will tell you, my friend, there will be no peace until the NFL owners meet on January 17," vowed White, citing the date on which the league owners are scheduled to vote on the move. "And there may not be peace afterward, if we don't keep the Browns."

To understand why Cleveland is a single exposed nerve these days, you must understand two things. "Football is America's sport," explains 72-year-old Dante Lavelli, impeccable in a blue blazer, rep tie and scalpful of silver hair. "And Ohio is the cradle of football: Massillon High School, Ohio State, the Hall of Fame and the Cleveland Browns.

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