Sixteen years later, it still stings.
What hurts aren’t the lingering effects of former Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell relocating the franchise to Baltimore in 1996 and rebranding the team the Ravens. Rather, it’s that Modell’s philanthropic accomplishments in Cleveland would go overlooked.
After Modell’s death Sept. 6 at age 87 at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Cleveland leaders like philanthropist Milton Maltz and William Finn, CEO of the Hospice of the Western Reserve, acknowledged Modell’s accomplishments in the community during his tenure here.
Maltz said he and his wife Tamar “were saddened at the passing of our dear friend Art Modell. His philanthropic character shined through all the ups and downs of football. We will never forget during his many years in Cleveland, he was one of the community’s most generous benefactors.”
The Hospice of the Western Reserve, a community-based nonprofit agency that provides emotional support to patients and families in Northeast Ohio, credited the Modell family’s philanthropy with the creation of the hospice’s first residential care center, the David Simpson Hospice House.
“Art and (his wife) Pat were never interested in notoriety for their contributions,” Finn said. “They were motivated solely by their desire to provide a home away from home with the finest quality end-of-life care. They worked quietly behind the scenes, calling on their friends and business associates to help make the house a reality.”
Dave Gilbert, president and CEO of the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission, worked with Modell and Modell’s son David while running North Coast Harbor, an organization in charge of the downtown lakefront development.
“There were some very good things that Modell did for Cleveland prior to leaving those wounds,” Gilbert said. “At the time I dealt with him, he was always a pretty gregarious guy. He was, at the time, very well loved in the community.”
Gilbert acknowledged Modell’s legacy has some “major tarnish” on it in Cleveland – “as it should,” Gilbert said – but he admits he’s put it behind him and he encouraged Browns fans to do the same.
“It doesn’t do any good to dwell on those kinds of feelings,” Gilbert said. “Most people hold a lot of ill will (toward him) and I think most of it is rightfully so, but prior to that, he was also known as a great owner of the team, a real philanthropist in the community and a pioneer in the NFL.”
Modell, who purchased the Browns in 1961 for $4 million, was instrumental in creating “Monday Night Football.” He was a member of the NFL’s television committee and volunteered the Browns to play in the first prime time Thanksgiving game in 1966 and the first Monday night game in Cleveland in 1970.
Lisa Bercu Levine, who spent seven years with Cleveland television station WEWS as a sports reporter, saw both sides to the team’s relocation after joining the Ravens’ broadcast team in 1996.
“I went to cover the Ravens’ first game in Baltimore as part of Channel 5 and saw the Modells on the sideline,” said Levine, who was weighing an offer from CNN’s sports division on the West Coast at the time. “Art asked me, ‘We’re looking for a director of broadcasting here with the Ravens. Would you consider that?’”
Levine, a Pepper Pike resident who took up Modell on his offer, said working for a pro sports team was an “awesome challenge,” but it wasn’t without some emotion.
“I was a diehard Browns fan,” said Levine, a congregant at The Temple-Tifereth Israel in Beachwood and Cleveland. “I was as crushed as anyone when they left. I really was able to separate the emotion of it and see the position with the Ravens as a great opportunity.”
Plus, as Levine’s two children pointed out to her the day Modell died, she wouldn’t have met her husband David if she didn’t move to Baltimore.
Levine said the team’s move was a “shame,” but said it visibly affected Modell.
“Art did some tremendous things here,” Levine said. “I think he slowly knew that there was no coming back. There was certainly a sadness about giving up the friendships and the people here … but there was nothing like the people in Cleveland and what they meant to Art.”