The latest round of dysfunction in Berea has taken a serious toll on me as a football fan and it might have permanently changed my perspective of the game. A week or so ago, I got into a conversation with a Twitter follower who has been reading WFNY for some time, and he noted how much I’ve changed in terms of how I look at the Cleveland Browns. Where I once looked for ways they could be getting things right and improving, I now look with a skeptical eye. I acknowledge this change and I think it’s interesting to look at how it all came about. I don’t think it necessarily started in the past year, but I believe the tipping point was the raid on Pilot Flying J.
I couldn’t have been happier about the ownership change for the Cleveland Browns. As time moved along and as Randy Lerner failed to build a stable, competitive football organization in any manner or style,1 it seemed like a dream come true that the team would be in the hands of someone who aggressively wanted to own a pro football team. Yes, it was a man from Tennessee who had previously owned a minority stake in the Steelers. No matter though, because he wanted to own an NFL team. He was approved by his peers with a round of roaring applause. He toured the league to see how organizations like the Patriots and Cowboys run their operations. He went and hired executives with legitimate NFL expertise in Joe Banner and Alec Scheiner. He was building an actual organization, it seemed.
And then his company got raided in April on tax day.
Over night, the NFL owner who sat in the Dawg Pound, never feared interviews, and seemed solely focused on his expensive hobby of a football team was distracted. The news about the Browns changed on a dime as well. Were there contingency plans in place for team ownership should criminal fallout occur to Jimmy Haslam? What (if anything) would the NFL do with this guy who had just recently been granted kingship of his new fiefdom in Cleveland? Would they consider forcing him to sell the team again? As if Cleveland didn’t have enough negativity to overcome in terms of football track record, here was a specially imported level of potential dysfunction that no football fan should ever have to consider.
As I said in the open, it has really thrown me for a loop. It feels like an epiphany, but one that has come to ruin some blissfully ignorant notion of sports. I usually consider the word “epiphany” with a positive connotation, but what if the enlightenment that follows serves to ruin something you’ve loved and wanted to love your whole life?
I sit here today and tell you that I’m unsure what “Cleveland Browns” means anymore. The Browns are a legal entity owned by Jimmy Haslam, but the Browns are also a living history – written and oral – that pre-dates Haslam. The Browns are a tradition that lives within the fan base, passed from generation to generation. They are all these things and you’d think they should all be inter-connected about as tightly as anything ever.
Right now, given all the events of the past year on top of the decade plus that preceded it, I feel like I have nearly no connection to the thing that is legally allowed to call itself the Cleveland Browns. It feels as if the operating concern that is the Cleveland Browns has never been less connected to my working definition of what the Cleveland Browns truly are and were. I know that’s a little bit wonky and philosophical, but I’m still trying to wrap my arms around it as well.
Granted, it might just be the (constant) losing talking, but there seems to be an extra layer of disconnect today that didn’t exist even when Randy Lerner owned the team. Where we thought the Browns were getting a stability upgrade, only potential disruptions exist. Jimmy Haslam’s legal troubles hang in the balance. The team fired an entire coaching staff after their first season. By virtue of doing that, I feel like it put the front office’s future at risk2. As fans and commentators of a football team, we have an owner with a hazy future, lording over a now-questionable front office that fell on its face with its first coaching hire, and an obvious vacancy in the head coaching realm.
After spending plenty of time worrying about Browns situations over the past decade and a half, it seems impossible to fathom that I still need to worry about it. This era was supposed to be the one that those problems were alleviated by new, credible ownership. I hate to keep harping on it, but it’s this ownership that was specifically exported to Cleveland by the NFL. Nobody in this town knew Jimmy Haslam III existed before he bought the team. We didn’t vote for him. The thing that we’re supposed to take ownership of as fans hasn’t materialized as a worthy option and yet there’s nothing3 we can do about it.
I think I’ve lost my way. Maybe it’s just about winning and I’m wasting words, but more and more, as I develop opinions and philosophies about my place in this world, it feels like the toothpaste is out of the tube and there’s no way to get it back in.
Trust me when I say that I take no glee in my negative outlook. I don’t think it’s my natural place in the world. I just can’t deny the way this team makes me feel. That’s the state of things for me right now.