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Lifelong service to pro football should land Modell spot in Hall

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NEW ORLEANS -- If Ravens owner Art Modell is not selected for Hall of Fameinduction on Saturday, it would be an affront to the man, the game and theNFL.

He deserves to be enshrined as much as any player or otheradministrator/owner, including Tex Schramm, Al Davis, Wellington Mara and Artand Dan Rooney.

For most of his 41 years as owner of the Cleveland Browns and Ravens,Modell has been a league guy and a Mr. Insider whose deals helped turnfootball into the most popular of all American sports.

The Hall of Fame status would be justified.

The critics will point to Modell moving one of the league's most storiedfranchises from Cleveland to Baltimore in 1996, but that was justified andbecomes less significant as the new Browns develop, and the league continuesto flourish from Modell's past contributions.

"I certainly think he belongs in the Hall of Fame," said Mara, a leaguepioneer and owner of the New York Giants. "I don't know a person who has donemore for the league than Art Modell, especially through television."

The next time you see the sights and hear the sounds of the NFL coming intoyour living-room TV, thank Modell. Thank him for Monday Night Football, andfor NFL Films. League owners also can thank him for strongly advocatingprofit-sharing, which is why the NFL has parity and Major League Baseball isslowly dying.

As chairman of the NFL's television committee for 32 years before retiringin 1993, Modell was a key figure in deals that have brought more than $10billion to the league office.

The other was the late commissioner, Pete Rozelle. He is in the Hall ofFame.

"The league has suffered ever since he left the committee," Mara said ofModell. "His biggest contribution was the knowledge of TV, and he put it towork for the league."

That's what the voting should be about. Modell's achievements dramaticallyoutweigh any possible indiscretion. The resume is impressive. He broke theNFL-AFL impasse by agreeing to be one of two teams to move to the AFC alongwith the Steelers, and he was chairman of the owners' labor committee, whichsuccessfully negotiated the league's first collective bargaining agreement in1968.

He has been a ground-breaker, too.

He is the only elected NFL president in league history, serving from 1967through 1969, and believed to be the only owner to have had threeAfrican-Americans working in high-ranking, front-office positions at one timein John Wooten, James Harris and Ozzie Newsome.

"We laughed at some of the things he used to come up with, likedoubleheader preseason games and the TV deals," Mara said. "But look how theyturned out."

That's what needs to be remembered Saturday, not just the Browns' move.There were a lot of similarities between the Cleveland move and the Colts'leaving Baltimore in 1984.

In both cases, the stadiums were dumps. Both teams had gone through losingseasons, and government and team officials made promises they didn't keep. Butunlike Baltimore, Cleveland had built a new baseball stadium, a new basketballarena and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, while ignoring the Browns. Modellwent through league channels, unlike Colts owner Robert Irsay, who left duringthe midnight hour in a snowstorm.

Irsay took the Colts' colors and name with him. Modell left the heritage inCleveland despite league officials who suggested he hold onto the legacy as apossible bargaining weapon in court.

"When I first heard about the Browns leaving Cleveland, it was like someoneslicing me through the heart," said Wooten, a former Cleveland guard in the1960s and '70s. "But now when I see John Unitas, Lenny Moore or Tom Matte, Irealize what it meant for the heritage to stay in Cleveland. Those guys arelost."

Time will heal the wounds in Cleveland, just as it has done in Baltimore.Modell's move worked out for the league, which got new stadiums in Cincinnati,Pittsburgh and Tennessee. Even Cleveland.

But maybe the move won't come into play. Davis has a Hall of Fame bust, andhe moved twice.

There is more to the legacy of Modell than a move. He got involved in theCleveland community, serving on the boards of directors at Baldwin-WallaceCollege and the world-renowned Cleveland Clinic for 20 years.

He has always been compassionate, and that, maybe more than anything, hasgotten him in trouble over the years. Does he overspend? Yes, he is one of thefew bosses who feeds his employees, not just the players, three meals a day.He gave former coach Bill Belichick and player personnel chief Mike Lombardian open wallet for free agency in Cleveland, which led to enormous debt.

But he has gone overboard in trying to help troubled players like BamMorris and Larry Webster. The loyalty just doesn't end on the field.

"I just got a letter from the Browns' alumni association the other day, andfound out Eddie Johnson [a former Browns linebacker] has cancer," saidNewsome, the Ravens' senior vice president of football operations. "I showedthe letter to Art, and the first thing he asked me was what he could do tohelp."

The passion for the game and the league has always been there. Here's a manwho, at age 76, still attends most of the Ravens' practices. In the past,critics argued that Modell didn't belong in the Hall of Fame because he didn'twin a Super Bowl.

The Ravens won one for him last season, and Modell's teams have had 24winning seasons. His Browns won an NFL championship in 1964, reached leaguetitle games in 1965, '68 and '69 and appeared in three AFC championship games(1986, '87 and '89).

Only one thing is missing. It may have to come this year because the classis weak, and the only certain inductee seems to be quarterback Jim Kelly. Thenext few Hall of Fame classes will be loaded.

"He was sinned against more in Cleveland than he sinned," Mara said. "Ifinducted, there would be a certain amount of vindication because his lifelongservice wouldn't be marred by what some people call an indiscretion."

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