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Is it time to change our minds about Art Modell and the Hall of Fame?

Jan 21, 2013 -- 6:00am

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By Tony Grossi

The Morning Kickoff …

On to New Orleans: When Art Modell passed away at the age of 87 in the early hours of Sept. 5, the Baltimore Ravens dedicated the 2012 season to their former owner.

Modell brought the NFL back to Baltimore in 1996 by taking Cleveland’s team there. That act forever made Modell a hero in Baltimore and a villain in Cleveland, even though he eventually had to sell the team in 2004 to avoid personal bankruptcy.

The Ravens advanced to the Super Bowl on Sunday by defeating the New England Patriots, who are coached, of course, by Bill Belichick, Modell’s last coach of the Browns in Cleveland. These storylines keep dissecting.

So the Ravens are heading to New Orleans. And Modell’s spirit is undeniably with them.

Modell is a finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The marathon selection meeting -- sure to approach nine hours in length to debate 17 candidates -- takes place the day before the Ravens play the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl 47.

So the weekend of Feb. 2-3 could either be one of the greatest sports occasions in Baltimore history or one of the most disappointing. Or something in between.

Setting the record straight: Modell has reached this point of the arduous Hall of Fame process only one other time – in 2002. That selection meeting also took place in New Orleans. At that time, Belichick and his Patriots were making their first appearance in the Super Bowl, which they won over the St. Louis Rams.

In 2002, I was the Browns beat writer for The Plain Dealer and was the Cleveland representative on the Hall of Fame committee. It was my responsibility to open the discussion on Modell’s candidacy. I used the occasion not to endorse Modell’s election but to speak against it.

I argued that Modell’s one selfish act of moving the Browns -- leaving Cleveland without its bedrock NFL franchise until taxpayers ponied up for a new stadium, causing undue financial hardships to all whose livelihoods depended on the Browns, jolting the league itself and giving it a giant black eye -- outweighed all the good he might have done in 34 years prior.

I argued that a “contributor,” the category in which owners or league executives qualified for the Hall of Fame, had to act in the best interests of the NFL all the time, not just when it benefitted him.

Modell was eliminated on the first cut to 11 (which included a tie for 10th).

On several occasions thereafter, Modell reached the semifinalist round of 25 through the mail vote of the process, but never advanced to the finalist round and inclusion in the selection meeting at the Super Bowl. Until now.

Members of the Ravens, Modell’s family and friends and fans of the Ravens have charged me with continually campaigning against Modell over the years. But members of the Hall of Fame committee know that to be untrue. There simply has been no further debate about Modell’s candidacy. Until now.

What’s changed?: In 2002, there were 38 seats on the selection committee. Now there are 46. The makeup of the committee is younger and more diverse than in 2002. In fact, there are only 16 members of the committee remaining from the one that rejected Modell 11 years ago.

Modell’s legacy has not changed. It’s naïve to think that his death is not responsible for pushing Modell’s candidacy back to the forefront.

When I left The Plain Dealer for ESPN Cleveland last year, the Hall of Fame asked me to return as the Cleveland representative on the committee. So I will contribute to the discussion of Modell on Feb. 2.

When I spoke against him 11 years ago, I felt it was my responsibility to do so, based on thousands of letters and emails – it was the age before Twitter -- I received in the days before the meeting.

Many of Modell’s supporters have since said it’s time for Cleveland to “forgive and forget.”

So I now ask what is the prevalent feeling in the Cleveland market. Should I speak against Modell’s candidacy? Speak for it? Or lay back and let the other 45 selectors make their decision without any input from me?

You can Tweet your sentiments using the hashtag #ArtIn or #ArtOut. This is an unscientific survey. Results will be considered a guide – not a mandate.

I may also use your comments in a follow-up column. Send a brief summary (100 words or less) of your thoughts on Modell’s Hall of Fame merits to tgrossi@espncleveland.com. Emails must include a name, city and phone number to be considered.

Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com.

He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 46 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to tgrossi@espncleveland.com

Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi

 

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