One of the abiding questions for beleaguered Cleveland sports fans is whether or not LeBron James and Art Modell really belong in the same conversation. It's easy to equate the two sports pariahs because the similarities can be striking in the oddest ways.
From the classless and graceless exits to the sorry state in which they left their local fans it's quite natural to want to bury each up to his neck in his own private chamber in Cleveland sports hell, drip honey on their foreheads and watch as rodents and fire ants pick them clean.
You'll never witness me asking anyone to forgive LeBron James for the shiv he stuck in this town's collective backs. But if presented with the Hobson's choice of pulling one or the other from in front of a RTA bus driven by a meth-addicted escaped felon, I'm pulling LeBron away every time. Sorry, Artie.
And this was before LeBron's recent bout of maturity in the form of acknowledging that his noisy withdrawal from the local sports scene was a mistake. I don't begrudge any athlete chasing whatever dream comes his way. For James, the money was going to be there wherever he decided to play. Like any generational athlete what drives him is the elusive goal of immortality. In sports that's always been defined by championships.
What chafes about James is that ultimately he is not who we thought he was. We convinced ourselves he was Michael Jordan on limited evidence that came in the form of an ability to do things with a basketball that most of us can never fathom. When he left, we imagined with it all the championships he'd take with him.
But the sad truth when it comes to James is that he's never going to be who he thinks he is. He's not a king and he's certainly not Jordan. He's an overgrown kid who just happens to be really good at his sport. If or when that championship comes his way, he'll never own it like Jordan or Kobe. He'll have earned it on someone else's back.
Saying all this isn't supposed to serve as criticism, which is why James gets a pass when the only choice is to save the lesser of two evils. James is not a leader but instead one of the most talented followers in history. His inability to convince his superstar friends to play in Cleveland instead of Miami (although I blanche at the notion of Chris Bosh as a superstar) is all the proof you need of that. His playoff collapses are just the icing on the cake.
In that context James chasing his dreams where the real alpha dogs take them makes sense even if it hurts. James reached the conclusion long before the rest of us that there was no reason to build a team around him. He works far better when it's built around someone else.
So James throwing the locals a bone by suggesting he could see himself playing in Cleveland somewhere down the road is pretty much the same thing Jim Thome said on his way out of town the first time, too. It was the kind of empty statement that athletes say to get to the next question.
Besides I don't expect it to ever come to pass anyway unless James ends up like Thome, a mercenary playing out the string of on a great career but unable to call it quits. But even then I still doubt it, at least if Dan Gilbert still owns the team. He strikes me as the kind of guy that James is not--driven to success and motivated by slights. And that’s a good thing.
James doesn't exactly warrant a pass even as his situation at least has a thread of schoolboy logic to it. Modell, on the other hand, is a far different cat. In simple terms, he ran a franchise into the ground through the kind of stupidity the Lerner family can only dream about and then uprooted it for the sole purpose of trying to preserve it for the benefit of his idiot son.
There has been a lot of revisionist history afoot when it comes to Modell, mostly led by Modell directly or through those he has paid to be his dishonest messengers. Modell was always quick to try to blame a city he thought was more preoccupied with the Indians as the driving force to what he has claimed was an inevitability.
But nothing about Modell moving the Browns was the least bit inevitable. Owning a NFL franchise is the same as owning a license to print money. You can be Dan Snyder stupid and still keep each of your loved ones in Gulfstreams. The only thing you can't be is Art Modell stupid and before you dismiss this as merely snark, remember that despite the ludicrous stimulus package that the city of Baltimore and the state of Maryland gave Modell he still went through it like a brokenhearted teenage goes through Mars bars and had to sell the team anyway.
Modell could have sold the team to a hundred different buyers without ever sending Browns fans afloat. If he didn't like his deal with the city there were dozens of others who would have found a way to make it work in Cleveland. He moved the team because he was selfish and amoral. He could not have cared less about the psychological or financial impact that selfishness had on the thousands that helped finance a lifestyle that he didn't deserve.
Modell was a business owner who bled the city and its patrons for as long as he could and then skipped town to do it again somewhere else. James on the other hand was and always will be just a really good player. His leaving was felt because he’s an otherworldly talent and he was classless in his exit but the scale is just not the same and never will be.
Putting James and Modell in their proper historical context makes me tend to appreciate the entry level ineptitude of Randy Lerner a little more both for what it is and what it isn't.
The Browns have been awful under the Lerner family ownership. To that there can be no doubt. But at least we have the ability to scream from the rooftops about it. We've seen the alternative in Cleveland and as between an incompetently run franchise and none at all, there really is no choice.
No matter how poorly Randy Lerner has run the franchise, no matter how frustrating his impetuousness has been, there's virtually no likelihood that he abandons the city. The one thing he has that trumps all is money and while even that can be fleeting, there's no chance he squanders a NFL team like Modell did.
That's really quite good news actually, probably the best of all news. The team is on solid financial footing. Under Modell it was always a shaky existence.
The problem now is the abject inability to build off that solid base. Lerner's best qualities as an owner are his passion and his willingness to write a check. Unfortunately those are his only qualities as well. This team is still light years away from being a top tier outfit and so much of that starts with Lerner's poor stewardship.
Still, as much as Lerner frustrates me, he also makes me glad that he was willing to take over when his father passed away. While this town and this team could always do much better, we know firsthand it could be much worse. And that's always something I try to remember each time the Pittsburgh Steelers treat us take our temperatures rectally twice each year.
With NFL draft speculation in full swing now, this week’s question to ponder: Are the Browns’ needs at quarterback so vast as compared to the rest of its needs that it’s worth trading two number one picks for Robert Griffin III?