Art Modell, 1925-2012: Grifter, Traitor, Model NFL Owner

« Previous entry

From: Tom Scocca
To: Tommy Craggs, Stefan Fatsis, Nate Jackson, Chris Kluwe

Now Art Modell is dead. Good. He didn't die friendless and in pain, like Robert Irsay did, but at least he's just as dead. I hope Irsay gave him a friendly wave, one thief to another, as Modell plunged past him to an even deeper level of Hell.

Deeper? Oh, yes. Bob Irsay, the man who stole the Baltimore Colts, was a vicious, incompetent drunk. But he wore the nastiness right up on his shiny, booze-reddened surface. He didn't try to make anybody like or respect him.

Art Modell, 1925-2012: Grifter, Traitor, Model NFL OwnerFor the second year in a row, Slate and Deadspin are teaming up for a season-long NFL roundtable. Check back here each week as a rotating cast of football watchers discusses the weekend's key plays, coaching decisions, and traumatic brain injuries. And click here to play the latest episode of Slate's sports podcast Hang Up and Listen.

Art Modell wanted respect. "I had no choice," he said, when he stole the Cleveland Browns and shipped them off to Baltimore, to cash in on the damage left there by Irsay. Every day of your life, you have a choice. Art Modell's choice was to be a traitor and a con man—and, on top of that, to be a whiner.

Here he is in 1999, humbly summing up his life's work to the AP's David Ginsburg.

"I have a great legacy, tarnished somewhat by the move. The politicians and the bureaucrats saw fit to cover their own rear ends by blaming it on me," Modell said. "They built a new ballpark, a new arena, a science museum and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but I couldn't get running water in the upper deck."

Next paragraph:

The Ravens now play in a lavish new stadium—as do the expansion Cleveland Browns.

How you feel about that punchline—and the $550 million of public money smoldering beneath it—is a pretty good test of how much of a schmuck you are. Today's obituaries mostly assume schmuckhood. The AP assures us that Modell was "beloved in Baltimore." Do tell.

Here is what Arthur B. Modell did for the city of Baltimore and its faithful football fans: In 1991, when the NFL was signing up prospective owners for its 1993 expansion vote*, Maryland governor William Donald Schaefer recruited Robert Tisch, the co-CEO of Loews, to lead Baltimore's effort. "I had it all set ... and I'm 99 percent sure that I would have been the owner," Tisch told reporters later.

And then Art Modell called Tisch up and talked him out of it, steering his friend into buying a share of the Giants instead. When it came time to vote on expansion, Modell cast his vote for Jacksonville—against Baltimore, and against his own best friend, Alfred Lerner, who was trying to get a team there.

So Baltimore remained without an NFL franchise—and its stadium offer stayed on the table, for Modell himself to scoop up when he needed it. Because he had no choice.

That was the con. But he was a better grifter than he was a businessman. Cleveland had made it impossible for him to do business, imprisoned as he was in its terrible old stadium. So he cadged a $200 million stadium out of the citizens of Maryland—only to eventually mismanage his money and be forced to sell the team anyway.

Still, he won a Super Bowl before he had to cash out. And now he slides off to the flames of eternity, celebrated as a model NFL owner. Grant him that. In his greed and dishonesty, he embodied a timeless truth for fans everywhere: The NFL hates you, and all it wants is to steal your money.