Around Baltimore, they call this week’s exclusion of the late Art Modell from the Pro Football Hall of Fame an outrage.
Around Cleveland, they say it would have felt like a “sucker punch” if the Ravens owner had finally been elected.
On this particular matter, I stand with the football fans of Cleveland.
Art Modell was Robert Irsay without the booze. For Baltimoreans, Modell’s the man who brought us the Ravens. That makes him a hero around here. For Clevelanders, he was the man who stole away their hearts.
Does anybody think Browns fans bled any less than Baltimoreans did?
For football fans everywhere — and that includes Baltimore — Modell was part of the modern nightmare that haunts entire communities in which team owners declare, “Build me a new ballpark, or we’re out of here.”
Build me a park with luxury suites and personal seat licenses, and ticket prices to match my ego, or we’re out of here.
Submit to municipal blackmail, or we’re out of here.
It’s nearly 36 years since Irsay’s Colts fled to Indianapolis in the middle of a snowy March night. For all those alive back then, the memory still hurts.
Just as it hurts, in equal measure, for Cleveland Browns football fans. And their fans were still filling the home ballpark to capacity, game after game, year after year –- unlike Baltimore fans, who’d been so poisoned by Irsay and his endless threats and his incompetence as an owner, and his drunkenness, that we were staying away from Memorial Stadium by the tens of thousands when the end came.
Yes, yes, Modell had an excuse for leaving. Cleveland’s political leaders wouldn’t give him a new ballpark. Nor would Irsay get one for the Colts. (It was mainly the fear of losing another team that convinced the big shots around here to build new ballparks for baseball and football.)
Modell was great for Baltimore, absolutely. He restored our love of the game, he brought back our national self-respect in football, he built the strong organization that endures today.
But at what cost?
He was good for the NFL as a corporate entity. If you root for corporations, Modell was your guy. He got the league its great TV deal. He was smart enough to know Baltimore was a great football market.
But he was part of that ongoing nightmare for fans everywhere: Could we lose our team? Ask fans in St. Louis or Oakland or Houston or Los Angeles or …
Gimme a new ballpark, the team owners said.
But we can’t afford it, all those city leaders said, not with our struggling public schools, our exhausted police, our underpaid teachers and firefighters, our crumbling bridges and roads.
Not my problem, the owners said.
They perfected the art of bullying entire cities, no matter how much love and money had been lavished upon them.
Robert Irsay, who died 23 years ago this week, was a role model for this gang of pirates. Art Modell watched and learned, and all those weeping fans in Cleveland had to pay the price.
If you think Modell belongs in the Hall of Fame, imagine how you’d feel if Robert Irsay got inducted. An absurd idea, of course. But they’re part of the same heartlessness that said tough luck to millions of adoring fans.
How is that Hall of Fame material?
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” was reissued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.