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July 26, 2016 2:10 pm

Jewish Football Team Owner Smeared as Racist in New York Times Sports Column

avatar by Ira Stoll

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Art Modell, with the Super Bowl XXXV trophy. Photo: Wikia.

Art Modell, with the Super Bowl XXXV trophy. Photo: Wikia.

A sports columnist for the New York Times has used his farewell column to smear a Jewish football team owner as a racist.

William C. Rhoden, stepping down as a full-time columnist of the Times after “nearly 35 years” at the newspaper, devoted his final column to replaying a clash from 50 years ago between Art Modell, the owner of the Cleveland Browns, and Jim Brown, the great running back who played for that team.

As Mr. Rhoden tells the story in his column:

When the Browns opened camp in 1966, Brown was among the missing. He was in London, filming “The Dirty Dozen.” Shooting had been delayed because of weather, but the Browns’ owner, Art Modell, didn’t care. He wanted his star running back in training camp and made his dissatisfaction public. Modell threatened to fine Brown $100 a day if he did not show up for training camp….

He was making a power play to assert his control, to put his star fullback, who was gaining fame as an actor, in his place.

Modell saw himself as a liberal and would always remind Brown that he gave more to the N.A.A.C.P. than Brown probably did.

“That plantation type of attitude, I hated that,” Brown said.

Mr. Rhoden writes that “Brown’s retirement stands out because he defied a wealthy white owner who insisted on controlling the narrative.” Even though describing Modell — a Jewish high school dropout who grew up poor and who borrowed heavily to buy a team in which all his wealth was locked up — as a “wealthy white” is itself an act of controlling the narrative, and not necessarily in a fair or accurate way.

I wrote an email to Mr. Rhoden, asking if he meant to suggest that Modell was a racist, or if the “plantation attitude” was instead a reference to what Brown himself overcame by deciding to retire from playing, rather than show up or accept the fine. Mr. Rhoden’s reply was somewhat elliptical: “I think you should go with your gut — your first impression upon reading. You’ll be fine!” I read that as a signal that the line was an attack on Modell, not on any prior complacency or submissive attitude by Brown.

If it is, it strikes me as perhaps a cheap shot. Modell died in 2012, and is not around to defend himself. His obituary in the New York Times made no mention of his having any “plantation type of attitude.” Brown is 80; at the time of Modell’s death, he was quoted as saying, “I have a lot of respect for Art. I always considered him a friend.” If they had differences over pay or over tactics in advancing civil rights, or even if Brown found Modell to be patronizing or condescending, that’s one thing. But plantation owners had black slaves that they bought, sold and whipped. That’s a different thing entirely.

If Modell were around to defend himself, he might ask, why make a racial issue out of it? Why wouldn’t any employer, of any race, justifiably be annoyed when any employee, of any race, failed to show up for work on time because the worker was overseas pursuing other paid work in a different profession? That’s not plantation-style slavery, it’s just a free-market employer-employee relationship. How’s the employer supposed to run a business if the workers don’t show up, or, if, when their presence is urgently demanded, the workers accuse the business owner of acting like a brutal slaveholder?

Mr. Rhoden writes: “Brown would become an actor, an activist and an author. So it is with me.”

On the basis of this column, at least, I wish Mr. Rhoden the best of luck going forward in his career as an actor and activist.

More of Ira Stoll’s media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here. 

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