How much loyalty does a professional sports team owe its city?
For a few days last week, Art Modell was again the most hated man in American sports. Even death couldn't soften the hearts he broke when he stole the Browns and eloped to Baltimore.
Cleveland never forgave and Cleveland never forgot.
Every story needs a villain -- even a story as dull as "Complexities and Inevitabilities in the Decline of the Post-Industrial American Northeast" -- and Art Modell wrote the first line of his own obituary when he cuckolded one crumbling American city with another. Whatever good Mr. Modell did as an innovator in the NFL, or as a promoter of professional football, or as a force for peace and charity in his own communities, will appear in the lower half of the second paragraph. He will be remembered mostly for his interconference infidelity.
Hate is an emotion so strong and toxic and exhausting, we rarely see it in one another. What we find in books or movies or ourselves is usually the simulation of hate, a representation, an overwrought expression of dislike or distaste -- the word "hate" a cliché, misapplied and pale, a sixth-grade rendering of an uncontrollable fire deep and inexhaustible. So the scourging, purifying hate last week for a man who ran a football business was kind of extraordinary. And that hate raises some questions about professional sports in the 21st century.
Is a professional sports franchise only a business? Or is it a social and cultural and civic identifier important enough to be thought of as a public trust? In return for all of our love and devotion, for all the stadium funding and tax abatements and ticket sales, the sweetheart leases and TV deals and public subsidies, the graft and the kickbacks and the political grease, how much loyalty does a team owe its city?
By the time Art Modell climbed out of the window with the Browns, Cleveland had been a stale punchline for 25 years. The city was undone by modernity and technology and demography, by the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Interstate Highway System, by globalization and union bloat, by capital mismanagement and civic indifference, by racial tension and stagflation and by the rise of the Sun Belt and the fall of the Rust Belt.
But from Youngstown to Sandusky, as long as the Browns still played, you were a winner. You were an eight-time AAFC/NFL champion -- even as the decades piled up and the city fell away and the river burned and the engine plants and the flour mills closed and the wind rattled the stalks and the fences in the lots and the fields. The jobs left and so did your neighbors, but every autumn there was hope, there was something that connected you to an old glory, that bound you to a humming industrial middle class and a history as filled with possibility as Jim Brown himself with a football in his hands.
Or so it felt.
But it is the normal condition of the American consumer to be played for a sucker. That's the nature of capitalism. The business of the NFL and its team owners depends upon our passion and irrationality, our generational and geographic loyalties, our feelings of local pride or shame, our weakness for spectacle and our appetite for distraction and mythmaking and tribal intimacy. On our need to love and be loved in return. That's how they sell us football.
Or transport it back to Baltimore -- another city wronged by age and an old NFL lover and by the cruelty of progress. Art Modell and Robert Irsay did only what business demanded they do, which was to follow the money.
So is "fan" just another word for "customer"? Or are professional sports too important to be treated like a business?
Probably not. But there's a range of possible behaviors on the part of ownership, from the devotional Rooney/Mara end of the civic loyalty spectrum through the highest frequencies of Modell/O'Malley cynicism. That Art Modell learned nothing from Walter O'Malley and the Brooklyn Dodgers about how to jump a fence is pretty telling. In fact, that Mr. Modell couldn't earn a living running an NFL team in Cleveland, Ohio, would indicate to me he wasn't much of a businessman.
Did Cleveland Browns fans encourage his betrayal by living vicariously through a football team? By loving not wisely but too well? We did.
There is no real remedy for this, of course, except to decree all professional sports teams be sold off to fans and shareholders, like the Packers, or be seized and nationalized by their local governments like a Venezuelan oil field. Neither is likely.
And don't count on much clarification from up here in the press box. We're too busy telling you who has a high ankle sprain to hold ownership accountable or to remind you that you just floated the team another no-interest loan in the hundreds of millions of dollars to keep the show going. Maybe try to remember that all football is fantasy football.
Anyway, they love Art Modell in Baltimore. He'll be buried today in Maryland.
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