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Did Paul Brown have the authority to block the sale of the Browns to Art Modell?

Legendary head coach was a dominant figure among NFL owners

Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Martin Mills/Getty Images

One aspect that changed the NFL forever was former Oakland Raiders’ owner Al Davis.

Yes, Al Davis all by himself changed the landscape of the National Football League.

In 1980, he attempted to move the Raiders to Los Angeles but was blocked by a court injunction. You see, Davis didn't ask permission from the league. At the time, the league by-laws under Rule 4 stated that any relocation of any NFL club had to have the approval of three-fourths of all team owners in the league.

Davis was having issues with his current stadium in Oakland, the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum; which was built in 1966 and was also used by the baseball Oakland A’s. The stadium was owned by the City of Oakland and Davis wanted some much needed improvements done to the aging structure. The main focus was to add luxury boxes which would produce a very large chunk of funds that the club did not have to share with the league’s other clubs.

Another issue was when the two professional teams shared the stadium during simulcast seasons. Not only did the Raiders have to deal with a clay infield, but the A’s blocked off an entire section of an upper deck nicknamed “Mount Davis” which the baseball team explained gave fans a more intimate feeling for games. This cut out 11,000 seats for Raiders’ home games.

In 1980 after having exhausted all of his options with these two issues, Davis then signed a memorandum of agreement to relocate his Raiders to Los Angeles.

Which is all fine and good. However, he did this without bringing the matter up to the other owners first. When he did, the matter was defeated 22-0 (with five owners abstaining).

Undeterred, he attempted to move the Raiders to Los Angeles anyway but was blocked with an injunction by the NFL. In response, Davis filed an anti-trust lawsuit against the NFL.

In May 1982, Davis won his lawsuit. The jury took almost four days to deliberate, and came back that the NFL had violated Federal Trust statutes and awarded the Raiders $11.55 million. Under Federal Trust law, the damages by the jury tripled which meant the NFL faced penalties lost in the suit of $49.2 million.

Next, two things happened. First, Davis’ franchise was now known as the Los Angeles Raiders. Secondly, the NFL changed its stance on team relocation by stating that future matters on relocation would be the digression of each NFL club.

Without hesitation, the Colts moved from Baltimore to Indianapolis, then shortly thereafter the Oilers relocated to Nashville from Houston, and the Cardinals found the desert their new home in Phoenix after calling St. Louis home.

Different era

Back in the 1960s, the atmosphere was completely different. NFL owners discussed changes and policies and everyone was in complete agreement over matters for the most part.

If Rule 4 stated that three-fourths of the owners had to vote an approval for a franchise to relocate and they got the three-fourths, then that owner had the green light. If not, the owner begrudgingly remained in their current city.

Which brings us to Coach Paul Brown.

The Browns were a charter member of the NFL rival league the All-American Football Conference which began in 1946.

Paul Brown (left) with owner Mickey McBride (center)

Original Browns’ owner Mickey McBride, approached Brown about coaching the new franchise despite Brown still a member of the U.S. Army. World War II was drawing to a close. McBride paid Coach Brown $1,500 a month for the remainder of the war, a $25,000 a year salary commencing with his discharge from the Army, and a five percent ownership stake in the club.

Once he was discharged, Paul Brown became the general manager and head coach and built the Browns.

McBride was a fan of the game of football, but had very little knowledge of the game. It was Coach Brown who made just about every decision for the team. And McBride rarely interfered.

The Browns won four AAFC Championships and then merged into the NFL where they captured an NFL title. In 1953, McBride sold the Browns for $600,000 ($5,803,731 in today’s dollars), four times the largest sum ever paid for a professional football club.

At the time, the Browns’ ownership was McBride, his son Edward, along with several minority owners including Coach Brown and Dan Sherby, plus four others.

The new owners all had deep ties to Cleveland's finan­cial scene. They were Homer Marshman, who founded the Cleveland Rams, former Cleveland Indians President Ellis Ryan, Dave R. Jones, who had been a former Indians director, Saul Silberman, owner of the horse race track later known as Thistledown Racecourse, local businessman Ralph DeChairo and Paul Brown who now owned 15%.

The sale was contingent on Coach Brown still being the GM and head coach. This meant he would still have complete control over the football side of the operation whereas the new group would provide the financial aspects.

A story regarding the sale was written by Harold Sauerbrei on June 11, 1953 in the Cleveland Plain Dealer regarding the new owners intentions about Paul Brown. Will the new owners be as generous in allowing Brown to run their team as McBride was?’” the article stated on Page 1. The head of the new group, Jones, was quoted as saying, “The answer to that, ‘is yes!”

Browns are for sale?

The new ownership group of the Browns did just that: let Paul Brown continue to run things as he saw fit.

Coach Brown was accustomed to Cleveland’s founder McBride and now the group headed by Jones, whom both stayed out of the football side of the operation and stuck to the business of running a pro football franchise.

Cleveland Browns v San Francisco 49ers Set Number: X4022

At all owner’s meetings, it was Coach Brown who represented the club and held Cleveland’s vote on all league matters. Ultimately, the NFL wants to know that the person voting yes or no on any and every given proposal has the clear and unequivocal power to cast that vote.

Under the ownership headed by Jones, the Browns won two more NFL titles. Silberman eventually sold his shares to the other members of the group in 1955.

In early winter of 1961, an article written by Chuck Heaton appeared in the Plain Dealer which stated that there were two groups of investors who might be buying the Browns. The article stated the probable selling price would center around $3-4 million, which was an unheard of amount for a professional football club.

To that point, the last NFL club that was sold was in 1934 when the Portsmouth Spartans were purchased for $16,500 and then moved to Detroit and renamed the Lions. In 1960 and then 1961, the NFL expanded into Dallas and Minneapolis, respectively. Their fees were $1 million each.

The first group interested in buying the Browns was headed by Bill Evans of the Diamond Alkali Company. The second group involved Rudy Schaefer, head of the F. and M. Schaefer Brewing Company, and Arthur Modell, a New York advertising and television executive, plus other minority persons.

And just as Al Davis needed his three-fourths owner approval requirement, the same number of votes were required when a team is up for sale. The new owners come forward and submit their financial information as to why they should be the next owner of the franchise and if the former ownership agrees to terms, the pending sale is brought up at an owner’s meeting and then a vote is taken.

In 1961, there was some doubt that a group from New York City would get the required votes. The NFL had just added Dallas to their league in 1960 and the new Minnesota franchise would begin for the 1961 season. Now a 14-team league, any potential buyer of the Browns would need 10 owners to vote yes on a new ownership group coming in.

Prospective buyers of the Browns

The group headed by Schaefer and Modell was selected to purchase the Cleveland Browns. Both of these men would be the majority owners with Schaefer having the largest percentage. Each hailed from New York City where they maintained homes. Modell would soon purchase a home locally as well and move to Cleveland on a permanent basis.

Browns Take the Championship
Cleveland Municipal Stadium
Photo by AS400 DB/Bettmann Archive

At the time, Cleveland Municipal Stadium seated 74,438 for baseball and 81,000 for football. In the NFL, the home team took home 60% of tickets sales, all concessions, parking, in-stadium advertising and program sales. The visitor received 40% of the gate. So, the ticket sales were the main source of income for both the home squad and the visiting club. And the Browns usually sold out every game.

The owners wanted to make certain that did not change.

One of their concerns was that sometimes a change in ownership results in a change with the coaching staff. The Browns annually were one of the NFL’s best teams, and good teams mean good tickets sales. Was the new ownership group going to retain Coach Brown?

For some teams, Cleveland’s 40% visitor’s share out-gained their own home stadium percentages. Before the sale of the Browns to the Schaefer/Modell group was finalized, the other owners consulted with Paul Brown to ensure that the switch in ownership wasn’t going to disrupt any stadium deals so that the same good pay days would continue, plus an inquiry as if Coach Brown would remain as the head coach.

Almost every NFL owner telephoned Coach Brown to discuss these two matters prior to the vote on the pending sale. They didn’t call the new group or the outgoing owners, they called Paul Brown.

Coach Brown maintained at the time negotiations were in progress that he could block the transfer of ownership since the majority of stockholders looked to him for the final word. Plus, the other NFL owners trusted Paul Brown to continue to be a good steward for the league.

Coach Brown had his lawyer work on a new contract during the sale proceedings. In that deal, he would remain the head coach with a new eight-year agreement, remain the GM plus would be installed as Vice President and would retain a small stock in the club with an option to obtain more.

Coach Brown drew up the contract and worded it to suit him. When presented to Schaefer and Modell, both men had no qualms about the agreement and nothing was altered.

Art Modell

Modell was even quoted as saying, “That suits me.”

Coach Brown’s responsibility would be coaching, all field operations, still do the hiring and firing, continue as the Browns vote during owner’s meetings, and control the factors important to the success of the franchise. Schaefer would remain in New York and basically remain a ghost owner. Modell would take on the financial and promotional responsibilities.

Coach Brown was quoted as being 100% satisfied with the arrangements prior to the sale. Modell was then quoted as saying, “We’ll be partners in the Browns operation.”

With the first two ownership groups, they stepped completely out of the picture and allowed Coach Brown to do whatever he thought was the best for the franchise. Cleveland during this time was hugely successful on-and-off the field.

If Paul Brown smelled a rat prior to the sale of the Browns in 1961, despite having only one vote to block it, all he had to do was pick up the phone and ask the other owners to follow suit. The predicted vote to block the sale to the Schaefer/Modell group would easily have been 14-0 against.

One can only imagine what the Browns would have been if Modell did not fire Coach Brown in 1962.

Some say that Brown had lost touch with the game - now a more modern version of itself. Coach Brown had issues with communicating with the modern athlete as well. In the past, he was used to issuing commands and those directives would be followed to the letter. He was strict and controlling. This brought riffs between himself and other players, most famously star Jim Brown.

But the dynamic of pro football was starting to swing in a slightly different direction in the 1960’s just as the United States was seeing new opinions on the horizon.

The Browns would go on and capture the 1964 NFL Championship, making the franchise’s eighth title. Some say, that roster was simply Paul Brown’s guys. Some say it was the innovations of newly-installed head coach Blanton Collier and his offensive strategy.

In any regard, Paul Brown had the power to stop Art Modell from purchasing the Browns in 1961. He did not. He did not see the need to.

The rest, became part of the franchise’s history.