When you're here, you're family, right? (That's what they want you to think.)
The trap of treating fandom like something greater
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Live event update! If you’re in or near Louisville, Kentucky on Saturday, July 16th, join me and my friends in Lou Oyster Cult for our collaborative pop-up event at The Merryweather! There’ll be oysters, drink specials, and several ACBN-original menu items!
Merch update! On Friday, I announced the first sale of ACBN merchandise, with all profits going to support the Kentucky Health Justice Network. We blew through most of this batch of merch over the long weekend, with $1,060 raised to support KHJN’s essential work toward securing reproductive rights. If you sent a donation via Venmo, trust that I’ve received it, and that it’s already been passed on to KHJN. I will have your merch in the mail very shortly!
Thanks so much!
Now, here’s a rant about a sports team I used to love.
I have put up with a lot from the Cleveland Browns in my life.
Growing up in Northeast Ohio in the 1980s, the Browns were the air we breathed and the water we drank1, but even then—at the best they’d be for decades to follow—they were a frustrating pain in the ass. Some of my earliest memories of sports are losses so tragic they earned their own proper appellations and eventual standalone Wikipedia pages—The Drive, The Fumble, etc.
Rooting for the Cleveland Browns meant learning heartache at a very early age.
In retrospect, those were the good old days.
You might know the broad strokes, but I’ll lay them out in case you don’t.
In 1995, the team—one of the NFL’s oldest and most fervently supported clubs—moved to Baltimore despite a widespread public outcry, and were replaced four years later by a cheaper, crappier facsimile with the same name and color scheme. More than two decades of almost entirely god-awful football ensued, with the team comfortably holding the worst record in the league over that span.
They lost, and they lost a lot, but what’s worse, they were boring.
When the team went 0-16 in 2017, joining the similarly-hapless Detroit Lions as the only teams in league history to do so, it was actually a bit of a refreshing change; at least they’d get a better draft pick than they did over the previous nine years, where they averaged four wins a season, the worst you can be while still having nothing to show for it.
Still, I stuck by them, because… well, I’m a Browns fan, I’d say.
Changing allegiances or abandoning the team outright never even entered into consideration, despite the fact that I hadn’t lived in Cleveland for decades—or perhaps because of that fact.
Moving around a lot as I have—from Cleveland to Columbus to Cincinnati, then New York City and now Kentucky—it always felt important to retain some semblance of back home, and being a Browns fan was a big part of that. No matter where I’d go, I could find a Browns Backers bar, and it’d be stuffed to the gills with people I shared common experiences and understandings with, people who had Bernie Kosar or Brian Sipe posters on their bedroom walls growing up and knew the fine-grained differences between being a West Sider or an East Sider2.
Seeing someone else wearing gear in that familiar brown-and-orange color scheme made it feel like we were in on the same joke, even if we were usually the butt of it, like nodding at a traffic light to someone else driving a rusted-out Dodge Dart.
In all that time, in all those decades of losing and wasting draft picks on scrubs picked three slots ahead of future Hall of Famers, through all the jokes and sneers from other sports fans, the Browns tested me.
But they never actively pushed me away.
Until now, that is.
I thought about writing this piece three months ago, when the Browns first traded for Deshaun Watson—a three-time Pro Bowl quarterback, a very talented player who also stands credibly accused of sexual assault by no fewer than two dozen women who he’d hired under the auspices of seeking massage therapy services. To be perfectly honest, though, I couldn’t gather my thoughts at the time other than to be angry.
The Browns have been back in the news and back on my mind the last few weeks, though, both because of further allegations and mounting evidence against Watson. and because word has gotten out that they plan to ask the city of Cleveland—one of the poorest major cities in America—to foot the bill for hundreds of millions of dollars in renovations to their 23-year-old stadium, if not an outright replacement that could cost more than a billion dollars in public money.
That they are doing this immediately in the wake of giving the largest fully-guaranteed contract in league history—two hundred and thirty million dollars, roughly the original cost of the stadium they currently play in—to a man facing such serious and significant allegations should be surprising, but of course it’s not.
It should be the kind of audacious slap in the face to fans and residents that an organization would never dare make for fear of the backlash, but it isn’t that either.
Because they think fans will stay.
The Browns’ current situation is an especially egregious example of this attitude, but they’re far from atypical among sports franchises in viewing their fans with such calculated disdain. In April, Cincinnati Reds team president Phil Castellini addressed legitimate criticisms of his organization’s commitment to winning (or apparent lack thereof) by asking fans simply “where are you going to go?”
It’s how most—if not all—people in control of sports franchise view their relationship with fans: you’ll go along with it because you’ve got no other choice.
It’s cynical, it’s brazen, it’s offensive… and for the most part, it’s right.
I would love to see a mass exodus from the Browns’ fandom over the Watson trade, a widespread rebuke of owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam that forces a change in front-office behavior if not a wholesale change in ownership. I would love to see the fanbase throw down their jerseys and hats and season tickets and say we’ve put up with a lot, but this is far worse than losing.
But I know that I’m in the minority in saying I can’t support this team at this time.
For every Browns-fan friend I’ve seen express revulsion and disgust at the acquisition, I know there are ten more willing to look the other way in the interest of winning, or even willing to get online and argue that “he was found innocent!”, a legal status that neither exists nor plausibly applies to Watson, who still faces numerous civil actions despite a grand jury opting not to indict him.
Enough people will line up behind Deshaun Watson simply because he’s wearing brown and orange now, the same way comparable contingents within other fanbases likely would have had he become an Atlanta Falcon or New Orleans Saint or Carolina Panther or whatever.
If he avoids lengthy suspension from the league—and I don’t bet on sports, but I’d put down money that he will—and leads the Browns to their long-desired Super Bowl, then the defenders will cheer and bray and act like the detractors were wrong all along, even if the argument never had anything to do with how good he is at playing football.
A part of me wishes that I could simply pick another team, transfer my fandom and identity to a more seemingly-respectable place, but that would simply be trading the devil I know for a devil I don’t.
The problem here is the Browns, but it’s a problem I’d face with treating any other team like a part of my identity. It’s the nature of viewing yourself as a part of a group that you don’t have any real say in.
Sports teams, corporations, political parties and dysfunctional families alike depend on the bind of manufactured identity to survive and continue despite their worst actions. The language of “we’re a family” is used to excuse any and all bad behavior by making you feel included, when that sense of inclusion is little more than an illusion designed to mollify your anger.
As Ashley Rodriguez wrote in this excellent 2020 post—you’re only family when you’re at Olive Garden.
The Browns are banking on fans viewing themselves as part of one big family, and it can be easy to delude yourself into thinking that’s true when crowded into a stadium or bar full of strangers wearing the same colors and cheering for the same things to happen, rising and falling on the same tide of shared emotion and history and desire.
They want you to excuse everything—the stadium named after a deeply-corrupt energy company, the sex pest quarterback, the billion-dollar civic panhandling—because it’s all for you.
We’re doing this for you.
You’re a part of this family.
You’ll go along with what’s best for the family, because it’s who you are, they say.
At some point, you have to stop and ask yourself: well, is this who I want to be?
—Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)
Neither the air nor the water in 1980s Cleveland was especially great, so this is apt
I am a West Sider, even though I haven’t lived on the West Side since 1997.