Owners Take Hit from Browns Fans at NFL Meeting
ATLANTA (AP) _ Waving dog bones and chanting ``no team, no peace,″ hundreds of Browns fans descended on an NFL owners meeting Tuesday to demand that their beloved franchise remain in Cleveland.
The league, however, said the owners would not have enough time to properly consider the move to Baltimore, and commissioner Paul Tagliabue was not expected to make a formal recommendation.
``I think it’s highly unlikely that we’ll have a vote on the Browns at this meeting,″ NFL spokesman Joe Browne said.
Modell met Tuesday evening with the NFL’s stadium and finance committees at an airport hotel. Accompanied by his son, Browns vice president David Modell, he avoided reporters going into the room and sent word he wasn’t planning to talk afterward.
Robert Tisch, co-owner of the New York Giants, reserved judgment on whether he would support Art Modell’s plan to move his team from Cleveland to Baltimore.
``I can see both sides,″ Tisch said. ``We have to look at Cleveland, which has been a fantastic football town over the last 50 years. We also have to think about Mr. Modell’s position of being competitive in a highly competitive field, which I think is going to become more competitive over the next couple of years.″
More than 160 Browns fans took a 16-hour bus trip from Cleveland to Atlanta to show their support for keeping the team where it has been since 1946. Dozens more flew in from cities as far away as San Francisco to support the cause.
Cleveland Mayor Michael White led a caravan to the hotel where the owners were meeting, bringing petitions calling for the Browns to stay in Cleveland. Later, a delegation of fans returned for a candlelight vigil _ actually, they used tiny flashlights _ while jets roared away in the background.
Next to Modell, the most unpopular person at the hotel was an advertising company worker hired by a Baltimore radio station to display a sign: ``The Browns and Baltimore. A Great Team.″
``That’s hideous and vile,″ an irate Cleveland fan said.
The entire group of owners will meet Wednesday to hear from Modell and those in Cleveland opposed to the move, which is being challenged in court and under league rules needs approval from 23 of the 30 owners.
``We’ve come to tell them that in this age of sky boxes and club seats and free parking and free concessions and multimillion-dollar deals for free agents and domes and new stadiums ... your best asset is the fans,″ White said at a lunchtime rally for Browns fans.
While the owners are not expected to vote on the Browns move, they may take an informal poll to see where they stand for the formal vote at a later meeting.
Also scheduled to be discussed is a new collective bargaining agreement through the year 2002. The contract already has been approved by the players.
A Cleveland delegation led by White, Ohio Gov. George Voinovich and city business leaders will address the owners, including Modell, in a one-hour session Wednesday. Modell then will get an hour to explain to his colleagues how he has lost millions of dollars in Cleveland with a team that consistently sold out.
The Save Our Browns Committee revealed its evidence that the team should remain in Cleveland: 2.2 million signatures on petitions that were hauled into the hotel on luggage carts and placed on the floor of the lobby for the owners to see as they checked in.
``The Cleveland Browns are my life,″ said Paul Serbu, a season ticket-holder from Dayton, Ohio, who was decked out in a full Browns uniform, including the helmet. ``This is morally wrong.″
One NFL source said a possible compromise is to leave the Browns name, logo and colors in Cleveland and allow Modell to take his franchise to Baltimore with a new nickname. That would clear the way for another team to move to Cleveland, where voters have approved a $176 million tax package to renovate the aging, 80,000 stadium that Modell says is inadequate.
Tampa Bay, Seattle, Cincinnati and Arizona, all unhappy with their stadiums, have been mentioned as possible candidates for relocation.
``The biggest issue, first of all, it we’d like to keep our Browns,″ said former Cleveland running back Greg Pruitt, who accompanied the delegation to Atlanta. ``But realistically, we have to look at it like it’s the Cleveland Browns name and the Cleveland Browns history that we’re fighting for.″
Pruitt said he would settle for another team in Cleveland as long as it was named the Browns, and he thinks most fans feel the same way.
``I don’t know how we’d get a team in there, but at the beginning of next season I think we’d take any team named the Cleveland Browns,″ he said.
But Cleveland’s mayor continued to insist he’ll demand nothing less than the entire franchise remaining in the city, and other Browns supporters said the NFL should demand that Modell sell the team to someone who would keep it in Cleveland.
``I have not come to Atlanta to accept a non-binding piece of paper that we will get a team sometime down the road,″ White told the fans, some wearing jerseys with the names of past Browns like Lyle Alzado and Brian Sipe stitched on the back.
Pittsburgh owner Dan Rooney has complained that Cleveland is hurting its case by encouraging fans to bombard the owners with millions of e-mails, faxes and letters. White disagreed.
``I know it was an inconvenience to many of them, but I don’t think we burned any bridges,″ he said. ``I think they’ll be open to what we have to say.″