Last year was the year I finally lost the ability to seamlessly stomach being a football fan. It happened for all the reasons that many people have fallen out of love with the sport in recent years: not only the violence, but the results of that violence’s long-term impacts; the league’s uneven ability to discipline players or take any reasonable stand against its players’ inappropriate behavior; and the harshness with which those things are presented to the viewing and supporting audiences. I watched fewer games, but still followed my favorite team from afar. I am, even in my fading fanhood, still a Cincinnati Bengals fan. I grew up in Columbus, Ohio, caught in between Cleveland and Cincinnati—but my oldest brother went to college in Cincinnati, so I chose allegiance to the Bengals.
This has always made my fascination with the Cleveland Browns a bit odd. I don’t have a strong rooting interest in them, but I want them to succeed—almost as much as the Bengals. I find myself now, since the Cleveland Cavs’ miraculous title run and the World Series victory of Cleveland’s beloved Tribe, hoping for the success of the Browns more than ever.
Cleveland is, arguably, Ohio’s most famous city, particularly to people outside of the Midwest. When I tell people on the coasts that I’m from Columbus, they want to know if I was in the city for the Cavs victory parade. They want to know if I’ve ever seen LeBron around town. This happens so often that I just embrace it, nodding politely. Cleveland doesn’t often get credit for its full self. Cleveland is a vibrant and captivating city. It is fiercely politically active, with community organizing picking up even more since the murder of Tamir Rice in 2014. It has an exciting and unique arts community, rooted both in the performing and visual arts. It is also, simply put, an attractive city, perched on the edge of Lake Erie—leading to ferocious winters, of course, but making it a worthwhile summer escape for folks in the more southern parts of Ohio.
To some, perhaps many, who’ve never lived in Ohio, Cleveland has been known for its sports failures. They are well documented and often painful, so notable that they are given their own names: The Drive, when John Elway drove the Broncos ninety-eight yards in five minutes in the fourth quarter of the AFC Championship game in 1987, tying a game that the Browns would go on to lose in overtime. The Shot, in 1989, when Michael Jordan hit a playoff-series-winning shot over Craig Ehlo in Game Five of a series that the Cavs went into as favorites, after enjoying a rare hopeful season. The Move, the 1995 decision to relocate the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore, creating the team that is now the Baltimore Ravens, before the Browns returned to the city in 1999. In another abandonment, The Decision, LeBron James made the choice to leave the Cavs in the summer of 2010 to try his luck at winning with two stars in Miami (he did). The final one stands out for me. I remember watching the prime-time special in which James made his announcement, surrounded by friends in a small living room. Looking back, his leaving was inevitable, even though we all told ourselves he never would. It seemed like the least that could be given to this city, which had already suffered through so many exhausting, shattering sports moments.
To those who’ve never lived in Ohio, Cleveland has been known for its sports failures.
What I’ve come to like most about sports as I’ve gotten older are the different narratives that can be evinced by a simple play-by-play sports story. Sure, the games themselves can be thrilling, inviting, and deeply interesting. But when one of these narratives can be associated with the game, it builds a world for a fan that invites a new type of commitment, even with little or no rooting interest. Sports fans, like all of us, shouldn’t be measured by how they win, but by how they lose. Everyone is fine when they’re winning (until they become annoying). What one must appreciate about Cleveland sports fans is that even when their teams provided only heartbreaking losses, the losses didn’t define the fandom so much as their unwavering support for those teams did.
The Cleveland Browns are very bad. Lately, they are comically bad, with not much promise of improvement on the horizon. At the top of the NFL’s average attendance rankings are the usual suspects, year after year: Dallas, Green Bay, the New York Giants. One might think the Browns, averaging five wins for the past five years (and only a single win last season), would be at the bottom of the heap. But there they are, consistently in the middle. They don’t see the drastic drop-off in attendance one would expect for a team disappointing its fans, as with other teams whose performance might be more likely to ebb and flow. In 2012, when the Browns won five games, they ranked eighteenth in attendance, with an average of 66,632 fans per game. In 2016, with their one precious win, they were lower in ranking—twenty-fifth—but still had an average fan turnout of 64,311. It takes a lot to show up in winter, on the cold shores of Lake Erie, to see a team play out the end of a lost season. But even as the stadium crowd looked a little thinner in the cold of last winter, there were still fans, their shirts sometimes off, showing up to watch the disaster and hope for something a little better.
I found myself in Cleveland late last fall, a mere week after the Tribe lost a heartbreaking Game Seven of the World Series in extra innings, the same way they lost the World Series in 1997 with an exciting team that featured a young Manny Ramirez and a young(ish) Jim Thome. The mood in Cleveland last fall didn’t feel as somber as I expected, and perhaps that makes sense. The city was, at that point, less than six months from the Cavs throwing a victory parade for the 2016 NBA Finals. Also, though the Tribe lost in a fashion that Cleveland fans had spent months mocking (blowing a 3-1 series lead), it felt less embarrassing. It was simply a team that few expected to be there losing to a team that many expected to be there. Beyond that, losing to the Cubs felt a lot like one long-suffering franchise bowing to another, longer-suffering franchise.
It felt entirely deserved—the only way that a team from Cleveland could win its first title.
Months earlier, when the Golden State Warriors, by all accounts a team with bigger and better stars, had the Cavs down 3-1 in the NBA finals, it seemed like another Cleveland sports disappointment was inevitable. It was fine then, too, that so few people seemed to expect the Cavs to win in the first place. There’s a special resilience that comes alive in all of the best Midwesterners I know, whether or not they lace up sneakers and put on a uniform. Or maybe it’s something inherited by everyone who dresses themselves in the name of a city that pays them to play a sport, even if they aren’t from there. But LeBron James is an Ohioan, born and raised, who came back to Cleveland from Miami in 2014 with the sole purpose of bringing the Cavs their first-ever championship. Again, it’s all about narratives. What happened in the next three games seemed impossible. To me, and to most I knew who watched it. Even to some of my friends in Cleveland, who knew firsthand what LeBron is capable of. In the final three games, LeBron James combined for 109 points, 35 rebounds, and 29 assists, coming just short of averaging a triple-double, and punctuating his efforts with an iconic late-game block that helped seal the victory. It is rare to see a player simply make a decision that they aren’t going to lose and then follow through on that decision. It felt entirely deserved—the only way that a team from Cleveland could win its first title.
I have my teams, like we all do, but I’m starting to wonder if sports are more exciting from the outside looking in, with no rooting interests at all. Being a winning city doesn’t mean that your teams are dragging titles home every season, but it does mean that your teams are, at the very least, competing more often than they are not, like New York often was in the nineties or like Boston is now. Living—as I do for the moment—in one of the cities between New York and Boston, I watch fans bounce back and forth between whichever teams in those cities are doing the most exciting things. Connecticut currently has no NBA, NFL, or MLB team. It is easy, in these situations, to drift towards winners. I love most the Cleveland fans who chose to stay. The ones who wore their Browns jerseys in the years there were no Browns to cheer for. The ones who still watch the Browns on television, albeit through the cracks between their fingers. The ones who truly get to say that they watched the Cavs lose on The Shot, and they watched the Cavs in the dark era without LeBron, and then they finally got to watch a parade take over their streets. The ones who watched the Tribe lose but knew that they would almost certainly come back. There is a confidence that comes with a single title, especially for a city that hasn’t experienced one in a while, especially a title won in the fashion that the Cavs won theirs in. There’s something that tells that city that they can have this again, soon. Or at least that every one of their teams can get close. Winning ignites one of these cities in a way that can’t be described, and it rarely takes over a non-Chicago city in the Midwest the way it can potentially take over Cleveland.
I don’t know what will become of the Cleveland Browns, but I think they’ll be good soon.
I’m saying that perhaps we should turn our eyes away from the historically thriving coasts and look to Cleveland, a city that lost publicly and painfully for so long, now on the verge of winning. A city that doesn’t always attract the big market stars, working its way up the way so many of us do in life: with a long series of failures first, and then brief and bright success. I can’t predict the sports future for Cleveland. I think the Cavs have a handful of competitive years in their future. Even as the Eastern Conference improves, and even as LeBron is slowed down by age and the weight of minutes played, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, who were equally clutch in last year’s finals, have shown they can support him when healthy. The Tribe bolstered its lineup in the offseason, adding All-Star Edwin Encarnación to an already thrilling roster poised to make a deep run. It bears mentioning that last season, Cleveland’s American Hockey League team, the Lake Erie Monsters (now named the Cleveland Monsters,) also took their first title, just a week before the Cavs won the NBA Finals.
I don’t know what will become of the Cleveland Browns, but I think they’ll be good soon. I think it will be unexpected, something that happens while most of the country is watching something else. Perhaps this is overly hopeful. I hope to see winning slowly take over a city in Ohio the way it has for cities hundreds of miles away, in a way that has never seemed touchable. A city that is alive and brilliant, watching its long-maligned sports history change overnight. Every city has a window of possibility, and Cleveland’s window is now. It is wide open, and it is inviting you to watch for a different kind of improbably perfect Midwestern sports story.