Art Modell’s impact on Monday Night Football and NFL broadcasting history has been inflated.
Some of his biggest contributions to the league came from his willingness to serve as a chairman, which enhanced his specter of influence.
In my mind, the biggest plus on the late Modell’s ledger as a new class for the Pro Football Hall of Fame is voted on today is his hiring of Ozzie Newsome as the league’s first African-American general manager.
If Modell was a pioneer, it was in furthering the causes of minorities. He signed off on the decision to allow me to become the first woman in the Browns’ locker room in 1981, before the league’s mandate. If one former executive’s memory is correct, Modell might have been the one who pushed for it, overruling coach Sam Rutigliano.
Other women in other cities crossed that barrier before me, but Modell was among the first who believed it should happen, an opinion not shared by the Rooneys in Pittsburgh or the Browns in Cincinnati, where I was barred.
That said, I am not in favor of Modell being selected for enshrinement when the 46-member hall of fame committee convenes this morning in New Orleans. To me, moving the Browns to Baltimore supersedes all. I don’t believe there should be a place in Canton for bad businessmen, either.
But those arguing for Modell, among the 15 finalists for the second time, the last in 2002, would be wise not to stump on a television platform. They should emphasize the impact of what he did in promoting Newsome.
Opening door for Newsome
The Browns’ hall of fame tight end, Newsome did not receive the title of Baltimore Ravens general manager until 2002. He had served as Ravens’ vice president of player personnel since 1996.
Newsome, 56, paved the way for the Houston Texans’ Rick Smith, the New York Giants’ Jerry Reese, the Detroit Lions’ Martin Mayhew, the Oakland Raiders’ Reggie McKenzie and the Arizona Cardinals’ Rod Graves, fired after last season.
In the past three years, NFL rosters were 73.4 percent black, according to the league, yet the percentage of minority coaches and general managers continues to lag far below that.
Speaking at Super Bowl XLVII Media Day on Tuesday, Newsome said he wasn’t struck by the enormity of his groundbreaking title until being interviewed on a radio show by John Thompson, the former Georgetown University basketball coach, not long after he got the job.
“He said, ‘Now that you’ve become a general manager, other young African Americans will aspire to do that,’ ” Newsome recalled. “At that point, you go, ‘Well, yeah. Now that I’ve done it, somebody else can get a chance to do it.’
“It just so happened when I was born [in 1956], America started to change. I got a chance to be first because it changed. It’s not that I was any better than anybody else, I just hit the cycle at the right time.”
Some could argue that Newsome was in the right place at the right time with the Ravens as one of several Browns employees who followed Modell to Baltimore. But Newsome spent six years proving himself as a talent evaluator before he was named GM.
Credit by association
Some of the other pluses on the list for Modell’s hall of fame candidacy seem like revisionist history, especially when it comes to television.
He was chairman of the league’s broadcast committee from 1962-93, but former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle is considered the man who got things done. Modell volunteered the Browns for the first Monday night game. He agreed to shift the Browns to the AFC, breaking the impasse in the 1970 merger. He served as the first chairman of NFL Films and led the owners’ labor committee in 1968 in negotiating the first Collective Bargaining Agreement.
But the Browns’ move and how it came about — his insistence that the city take care of the Indians and Cavaliers first, his covert negotiations with Baltimore — should ultimately trump all, even as his former players stick by him.
Past employees’ support
“When I was a senior in college, the big deal with me was my size and it was a big question mark with a lot of teams,” Browns running back Greg Pruitt said of Modell on Jan. 24 at the Greater Cleveland Sports Awards. Pruitt, a 5-foot-10, 190-pound Oklahoma product, was drafted in the second round in 1973 and played for the Browns through 1981. “From what I understood I was not on the [draft] board of the Browns, but Art Modell had watched me in college. He stepped in and made them draft me.
“I consider him a good person and I owe my career to him. I don’t know where I would have been if that hadn’t happened.”
Former cornerback Hanford Dixon, who stood with Modell on the sideline when the Ravens won the Super Bowl after the 2000 season, feels just as strongly.
“I think there’s no question that it’s time,” Dixon said of Modell’s hall of fame candidacy at the awards event. “He was just a great guy. If you talked to anybody who played for him, 99 percent of the players would want him to be in because he has done so much for this league, so much for the NFL. I wish people would just ease up on him a little.”
Asked about Modell’s chances for the hall Tuesday, Newsome said: “He was a pioneer in just about everything that this game is about right now. Like in any decision, you have to look at the positives and the negatives. With him, I think the positives outweigh the negative of the move. That’s how I hope the voters do it.”
All three of those former Browns players are black. There will be similar sentiments from some hall of fame voters, especially after Modell’s passing on Sept. 6 at age 87. The Baltimore contingent will say it is time for Browns fans — and the selection committee — to forgive and forget.
I can’t see how that’s possible, even considering what Modell did for minorities, me included.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.