Thursday, September 13, 2012

Art Modell’s sad NFL legacy

By Rick Morris

Good friend Russ Cohen of Sportsology has asked for my feelings, as a lifelong Browns fan, on the passing of Art Modell and given how central he was to NFL history, that subject seems like an appropriate topic to address.

I wasn’t doing jumping jacks upon hearing the news; I’ll not speculate on whether my “1995 self” would have performed them!  I’ve since learned the value of not bring bad “Western equivalent of karma” on yourself and will try to be guided by that here.

But in all honesty, I was never a huge fan.  The team had arguably the greatest pro football legacy when Modell gravy-trained a title in 1964 on the momentum of what Paul Brown had built and by the 1970s, the priceless heritage had been squandered.  Sure, I saw some great times (briefly) at the beginning of the 1980s and during the last few years, but the firing of Marty Schottenheimer and the complete enabling of Bill Belichick’s in-over-his-head management style of the early ‘90s (no revisionism, please, Belichick Version 1.0 absolutely sucked – surely we should all be able to agree that any man who would diagram bootlegs for Bernie Kosar and fire him when circumstances went south was unfit to coach) told me everything I needed to know about his brand of ownership.  Given that he did have some winners, it would be less than objective if I rated him below the middle-of-the-pack of NFL owners over the course of his career.

However, his alleged Hall of Fame qualifications lie in his celebrated status as a “league man through and through.”  He headed up the NFL’s TV negotiating committee for decades and was awarded the first Monday Night Football game as a reward for working the new ABC package into the mix.  He was a loyal lieutenant through and through to the man who may go down as the greatest sports commissioner of all time, Pete Rozelle.

As part of his sidekick role, he bashed Al Davis through and through for abandoning Oakland in the early 1980s in words that were so hilarious in retrospect that it was too easy to throw them back in his face later.  He was an established part of the NFL Old Guard.

Because of that, his decision to replicate Davis’ path vis-à-vis Cleveland undermined the ability of the league’s faction of established owners to protect the Rozelle Way in the face of Jerry Jones’ Al Davis Version 2.0 assault on all-for-one, one-for-all.  The league that you see today, in which owners are selling off any part of the game that they can, no matter how insignificant and owners are locking out players not because they’re losing money but not making ENOUGH money – you can thank Art Modell for this.  Once this standard-bearer of the league’s era of growth-through-teamwork joined the every-team-for-itself ethos, resistance to the Dirty Big Money Way (which was never going to be spearheaded by the personification of the word “lawyer,” Paul Tagliabue) was over.

Those who want Art Modell in the Hall of Fame cite his value as a historical figure.  In order to get their way, they must first speak to the exact type of history he represented, because there is no honest way to represent it as positive.

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