© 2022 WYPR
20th Anniversary Background
WYPR 88.1 FM Baltimore WYPF 88.1 FM Frederick WYPO 106.9 FM Ocean City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

David Modell and the Crown


The life of an NFL owner is an exclusive one. There are, after all, only 31 members, not including the Green Bay Packers, who are owned by that Wisconsin community.

It’s a life that includes the best restaurant tables in any city and a level of celebrity commensurate with one’s willingness to accept it.

Members of said club are also subject to hero worship in a town. People take football seriously and the owner of a team is thought in some circles to be the keeper of a sacred flame, a monarch of sorts, if you will.

David Modell, who died two weeks ago of lung cancer, got as close to that throne as one can get.

He was the elder son of Art Modell, who owned the Cleveland Browns. Like some of the other sons of NFL owners, the Colts’ Jim Irsay, Dean Spanos with the Chargers, Mark Davis with the Raiders and Michael Bidwill with the Cardinals, David Modell joined the family business.

As a teenager in Cleveland, Modell accompanied his father on road trips and was on the team’s grounds crew for home games. The younger Modell helped the Browns recast themselves into the Ravens when they arrived in Charm City in 1996.

He helped pick the new team name and the new colors of purple and black and eventually, he became the Ravens’ team president and chief operating officer.

David Modell immersed himself into his new city’s cultural and philanthropic scenes, getting selected to a number of hospital and museum boards, the kinds of things that prospective NFL owners do. And he was a witty and urbane man, qualities rarely ascribed to NFL owners.

But unlike the other owners’ sons, David Modell never got the crown. The financial problems that caused Art Modell to move the franchise followed him to Baltimore. The NFL leaned on him to sell the team to Steve Bischotti in 2003, which left David Modell out in the cold.

That fact drew another distinction between David Modell and the other aforementioned NFL owners’ sons. Each of them got to stay on board to either run or own their respective fathers’ franchises after a move.

Though Cleveland quickly received a replacement franchise and got to keep its team name, colors and history, the Modells became outcasts in their hometown and their name remains cursed to this day in Cleveland.

Both Art and David Modell understood the ramifications of what happened. You don’t rip a team from its civic moorings in that way without some blowback.

But, at least Art Modell got to know what it was like to be the king. David Modell never did.

And that’s how I see it for this week.

Send questions/comments to [email protected] or @sportsatlarge