With Art Modell you never know if the tale is going to be about TV or TDs, leases or legends. "Did I tell you the one about Red Grange and George Halas visiting the White House?" he said last Friday, the day before his fractious 43-year career as an NFL owner came to an end with Baltimore's 20-17 loss to Tennessee (page 66). "As they're walking into the Oval Office, they hear, 'Mr. President, Red Grange and George Halas of the Chicago Bears.' And President Coolidge says, 'Whoopie! I love animal acts!' "
Modell, 78, achieved fame as the millionaire socialist who rallied the league around revenue sharing, but he also gained infamy as a curmudgeon who ripped the Browns from Cleveland (moving them to Baltimore in 1996) after a spat with the city over a stadium deal. Modell—who in '99 agreed to sell the Ravens to Maryland entrepreneur Stephen Bisciotti for $600 million with the proviso that Modell stay on through this season—bought the Browns for $3.9 million in '61, the year commissioner Pete Rozelle brought the twin gospels of revenue sharing and TV to the NFL. At the time teams cut their own TV deals, and as the only owner with his own network to air his games Modell had the NFL's most lucrative setup. Yet he agreed to throw his TV revenue into a pool, to be distributed evenly. He and Rozelle then got owners in New York, Chicago and L.A. to share TV revenue. "It cost me a lot of money," Modell said, "but Pete and I felt it was important to put every franchise on a level playing field."
But Modell, a Brooklyn native who made his riches as a TV and advertising mogul, had trouble running his own franchise. By the mid-'90s he was so cash-strapped, he had to borrow from a bank to sign receiver Andre Rison to a $17 million contract. Not long afterward Modell took a sweetheart deal from Baltimore, and he hasn't been able to show his face in Cleveland since. "I guess what bothers me is being singled out," says Modell. "Something like 10 owners in the Hall of Fame moved their franchises."
In the end, battered by his experience in Cleveland, where he didn't win a tide after 1964, Modell knew enough to know what he didn't know. In Baltimore he empowered power personnel czar Ozzie Newsome and later coach Brian Billick, who built the Ravens into Super Bowl champs in 2001. The fan in Cleveland will never forgive him. But the fan in Baltimore is eternally grateful.