the ultimate sucker punch

One week ago I went out for a bike ride.  While I was out, Lebron James announced that he was leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers.  And with that, Cleveland's best chance for a sports championship vanished.  But I am not going to talk about Lebron today.  Instead, I want to talk about a much more significant blow to poor ol' Cleveland.  One that had a much bigger impact on me than a free agent signing with another team.

Cleveland's sports woes are unparalleled.  The Browns last championship was in 1964.  It wasn't even called the Super Bowl back then.  They have not yet reached a Super Bowl.  The Indians last won it all in the 40s.  They have since played in a couple of World Series in the 90s.  The Cavs have zero championships and made the finals once, getting swept in 2007.  Cleveland does not have a pro hockey team.  No city in America can come close to this sad collection of teams.  And if the losing were not bad enough...

In 1992, owner Art Modell said, “I've been treated royally in this town, and this town deserves a winner. And I'm not going to go more than three years without having something this town can be proud of.”  In November of 1995, Modell announced that he was moving the Browns to Baltimore following the season.  Some of you don't recognize the magnitude of the shock this was.

  • Football was invented in nearby Canton where the Pro Football Hall of Fame resides
  • The Browns have the largest fan club in all of pro sports
  • Over the last seven seasons (pre-move) Browns fans filled 99.8% of seats despite a combined 36-76 record

In short, the Cleveland Browns can compete with any team when it comes to tradition and fan loyalty.

I will never move the Browns as long as I own the team” - Art Modell

Fan reaction to the news was swift.  I had previously connected with some Browns fans online and even met a couple of them.  These were the nascent days of the Internet.  Internet Explorer was on version 1.0.  Netscape was on version 1.22.  (Computer geek types: this was before cookies and javascript).  But we used such primitive tools to organize a series of protests.  I suspect what we did was the largest Internet-organized protests ever at the time.  We certainly got the NFL's attention.

Here's how it worked: Some folks organized lists of phone, fax, email and snail mail...of NFL teams, league offices, government representatives, networks, and advertisers.  Then others set a schedule of who to bombard when.  And the rest of us let 'em have it.  The various organizations weren't prepared for such an onslaught as they might be today and many were overwhelmed, unable to conduct their business.  It was reported that on our "Internet" protest day, email traffic was up 25%. This was before email was dominated by spam as it is today. A few folks even traveled to the off-season league meetings to protest directly.

"Art figured there would be protests because of the move, but he didn't expect the firestorm that resulted," said one NFL executive.  Sponsors that stopped advertising during Browns broadcasts included McDonalds, Papa Johns, Shell, Chevrolet, and Ameritech.  Congressional action was drawn up (though not passed).  And many NFL teams begged for mercy.

The media reaction was mixed.  Some organizations, most notably the NFL broadcast partners such as ABC and NBC toted the company line.  But smaller outlets spoke up for the little guy.  ESPN may be ridiculous now. But in those days, they were a voice of the fan. In particular, Chris Mortenson, Chris Berman, Keith Olberman, and Mike Lupica spoke up early and often on our behalf.

Mort... Personally, I feel this is a disaster for the NFL...the Browns? Come on. They belong to Cleveland.
Olbermann... to the [team] owners, you're a sucker -- and as long as you love them when they don't love you back, the heart-rending, disillusioning fate of the Cleveland Browns fan is your fate
Tom Jackson... I'm a friend of Art Modell's. I say that first and foremost. But what he has done has tainted every memory for every fan who has ever supported that football team.
Mike Lupica... It's not small markets killing sports. It's owners with small minds, and smaller hearts.

I'm not sure what result would have come from the media coverage and fan protests alone.  Luckily, we also had the law on our side.

"Something has gone awry. Our system is out of balance. We can't hopscotch franchises around the country. We have built this business on the trust of the fans. If we treat that as if it doesn't count, it isn't going to wash"- Art Modell

Because of contentious stadium negotiations a few years earlier which I won't detail here, the lease tying the Browns to Cleveland Municipal Stadium was iron clad and extended three more years (through the 1998 season).  The local politicos saw a golden opportunity and sued the Browns for violation of specific performance.  They won in a slam dunk and suddenly had leverage over the NFL.  If the league would not play ball with Cleveland, the city could force the Browns to stay for three more years, playing to empty seats while hemmoraging cash.

Just before that order was issued, the NFL and Cleveland came to an agreement.  The league guaranteed an existing or expansion team would come to Cleveland within three years.  The new team would retain the Browns name, colors, logo (?), history, and records.  The NFL contributed about $40M towards a new stadium and reimbursed the city's legal expenses.  Art Modell paid $12M in damages to the city.  It's not really what we fans wanted (we wanted the team to stay with a new owner).  But it was a pretty good showing against a league with an antitrust exemption.

What makes the NFL great is the stability of the franchises staying in the same location.”- Art Modell

The Browns did eventually come back as an expansion team.  But for me, it was never the same.  I try to spend as little money as possible on the NFL anymore.  Instead, my football loyalties now center on The Ohio State Buckeyes.  Ohio State is an institution inextricably tied to some of my best memories.  And they will never leave.

Big Dawg

But as for the end of that era, Bill Plaschke said it well.

Yeah, that's Thompson, the huge guy with the droopy dog mask who has sat in the Cleveland Browns' end zone for ages, typifying the loyalty and looniness of what were once the league's best fans.  Remember them? There was an average of 65,000 a game at Cleveland's Municipal Stadium. Not for one year, not for 10 years, but for 50 years.  I remember. I was there the last year, the last day. It was Dec. 17, 1995, the Browns' last home game before Modell moved the team to Baltimore.

That day, Big Dawg took off his mask and wept. Many in his section wept. Many Cleveland players ran to the end zone and joined them.

As I watched the end on TV, me and my tears were right there with Big Dawg and the team.