Art Modell died in 2012, and he died as the most hated man in the city of Cleveland. This is a title he will almost certainly hold for all time. When he moved the Browns from Cleveland to Baltimore in 1995, the unofficial slogan of the city of Cleveland became "Muck Fodell." At the time, Modell said he was "deeply deeply sorry" about the move, but that he had "no choice." This, suffice it to say, did not earn him much sympathy in Cleveland. After LeBron James announced he was taking his talents to South Beach five years ago, Modell said, "Do I think LeBron James as he leaves Cleveland will become the most hated man in Cleveland, more hated than Art Modell? Nonsense. Nonsense. I don't think there's any basis for it."
He was right. Two years after Modell died, a Browns fan was arrested for urinating on Modell's grave.
(The charges were dropped.)
A decade-plus earlier, Robert Irsay left Baltimore for Indianapolis in the dead of night, complaining about how Baltimore "didn't treat me better." Even Jim Irsay, current Colts owner and Robert's son, has disowned his father's "mistakes" since Robert died in 1997. Those two men (Modell and Irsay) were among the most reviled in all of sports, and will be forever. And from a fan's perspective, from a civic perspective, they deserve it.
But I don't think I've ever seen an owner be crueler to the city that hosted his team for more than a decade than what Stan Kroenke has been to St. Louis. He isn't burning bridges on his way out. He's napalming trees, poisoning the water supply and unleashing a plague of locusts from the top of the Gateway Arch. It's sort of amazing.
Kroenke has made it clear for more than a year now that he wants to move the Rams to Los Angeles as quickly as possible, and has taken every step available to make sure it happens. Kroenke (among others, including myself) was surprised by St. Louis' aggressiveness in trying to hanging on to the Rams, or at least some NFL team; the city's plan for a new stadium, and its willingness to fund much of it with taxpayer money, is the only thing that has slowed down Kroenke's westward march. The NFL would have rubber stamped Kroenke's sprint to Los Angeles already had St. Louis not stepped up with its riverfront stadium plan. Of the three cities in danger of losing their teams to L.A. -- St. Louis, Oakland and San Diego -- St. Louis has, by far, offered the best stadium plan to the NFL as a pitch for keeping their respective teams. Now, the proposed St. Louis stadium will probably not be good for the city, and the money the city, county and state would be spending on the stadium could be used for about a million better things in that struggling town, but whatever: St. Louis, to this point, has shown it wants an NFL more than San Diego or Oakland wants one. (Or at least has shown it's more willing to pay for one.)
This has not affected Kroenke one bit. It is likely the city of St. Louis could have built him a ten billion dollar stadium, with Kroenke's picture on every door and a golden calf idol in his honor, while he was feted with on-demand footrubs from the mayor and all his assistants whenever he desired, and Kroenke would have still turned them down. I've never seen an owner more hellbent on leaving. Not only has he ignored all of St. Louis' offers, he has actually already begun construction on the new stadium in Inglewood, Calif., even though he doesn't have the NFL's approval yet. Yeah, you know that big NFL owners meeting in a couple of weeks, the one where Oakland and San Diego and St. Louis are supposed to learn their fates? Kroenke isn't waiting for that. He's gonna build his $1.8 billion stadium anyway, even if the NFL says he can't bring the Rams there. Inglewood's mayor says, hey, if the Rams don't show up immediately, the town can have some Final Fours or the Oscars at Kroenke's facility until they do.
St. Louis has put forth the best plan, has shown its fervid (if possibly misguided) devotion to making sure it has an NFL team (any NFL team) and is doing everything in its power, even following the NFL's relocation guidelines to the T, to make its case. And here Kroenke is, just building his stadium anyway, not waiting for what the league has to say.
But that's not the worst part. The worst part is that Kroenke isn't just saying St. Louis isn't the right place for the Rams … he's saying it's not the right place for anyone.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch obtained Kroenke and the Rams' proposal to the NFL for the big meeting, and most of it is about how wonderful it's going to be in Los Angeles, how he believes the team's lease with the Edward Jones Dome provides him an out (and it probably does, considering how bad a deal St. Louis signed to get the Rams in the first place), how any owner in his position would do the same thing.
But it's the last section where Kroenke does to St. Louis what that Browns fan did to Modell's grave.
Kroenke argues, essentially, that St. Louis is a dead city and no one should ever play football there again. He says that San Diego and Oakland are "significantly more attractive markets than St. Louis" -- this is sort of like a man trying to win a lover's hand by claiming her other suitors should be happy with the girlfriends they already have -- and that "compared to all other U.S. cities, St. Louis is struggling." St. Louis "lags, and will continue to lag, far behind in the economic drivers that are necessary for sustained success of an NFL franchise."
And then it gets really mean.
If the NFL lets the Rams go to Los Angeles, the St. Louis stadium plan -- which, to repeat, is the only other one on the table -- is still meant to bring in some NFL team. Maybe it's the Chargers. Maybe it's the Raiders. Maybe it's a future owner looking to accept a billion-dollar stadium a metropolitan area is just willing to hand over. This whole thing is about St. Louis remaining an NFL city, no matter what Kroenke has on his mind.
Except: Kroenke wants the land torched for everyone. "Any NFL Club that signs on to this proposal in St. Louis will be well on the road to financial ruin, and the League will be harmed," the proposal says. That isn't a negotiating tactic: That's a neutron bomb.
Even while Modell was moving the Browns, he was calling the people of Cleveland wonderful, and saying "Ohio is my home." (He would never return, regardless.) He apologized to the city. He said the move and the response to it haunted him to his death. Now, you might believe Modell was full of it, and that if he really cared about Cleveland, he wouldn't have moved the team, and you might well be right. But he at least pretended to feel bad, and didn't flip off the locals on his way out the door.
I don't know what's going to happen at the NFL meetings, or how many teams are going to Los Angeles, or if this is even going to happen this year. (The notion of Kroenke having to stay in St. Louis another year is a delicious one.) I don't know whether St. Louis will end up with a team. I don't even know if there aren't a few tiny kernels of truth in Kroenke's broadstroke against a town that has been through some profoundly difficult times over the last three decades and is striving to crawl its way back, with more modest success than Kroenke will ever acknowledge.
I just know that one should keep a safe distance from Stan Kroenke's grave in 40 years. There might be a line.
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