December 16. Cleveland Browns Stadium. 4:15PM.
There is laughter amidst the rage. There is always a lot of laughter when the wheels come off.
There is laughter around me as a bottle, still mostly full of beer, comes hurtling down from the upper deck, impacts violently, and explodes in a spray of foam in the stands hundreds of feet below. A futile expression of rage has crashed down two seats away from a middle-aged fan who laughs nervously and backs away.
I breathe a sigh of relief that none of my children are here to see this.
I am watching the last minutes of the Browns – Jaguars game as it descends into chaos. Moments before, a tidal wave of plastic surged from the stands as fans reacted to its insane conclusion. I had seen this once before, in my youth, during a game against the Houston Oilers. The wave of debris started from the same location then as today: The eastern end of the field. The Dawg Pound. Only then the bottles were glass.
I don't join in as the riot unfurls, and don't cheer it on. All I can do is shake my head, watch it unfold, and dread the aftermath.
* * *
We can expect that the scolding will be nonstop during the brief time that the mass media's limited attention span turns towards Cleveland. Unfortunately, we can further expect that the immense stupidity of the NFL and game officials, as well as other contributing factors, will be relegated to supporting roles in editorials appearing in a newspaper or TV near you.
There is no doubt who will play the starring role as King Hooligan in the NFL's latest morality play. It will be the City of Cleveland.
The commentators will cluck their disapproval with the faux-enraged vigor held in reserve for the easiest targets. ESPN, part of the same corporate family responsible for the infamous "no crowd shots" Browns-Steelers Monday night game in 1995, led the way on Sunday night. Certainly more will follow, most of whom will safely offer mild criticism of the officials before launching a diatribe attacking fans in general, and Cleveland fans in particular. What the various cue-card reading commentators will infer, much to the glee of their non-Ohio audience, is the presence of some sort of Beer Riot chromosome in the local gene pool. As proof, they will point back to the 1974 Nickel Beer night, which occurred well before many of Sunday's bottle chuckers were even born.
If we're lucky, the editorialists will mention the horrific officiating. I expect that none will take the time to probe any deeper than that.
Among other things, network commentators surely won't note the contributing role played by poor decisions on the part of the Stadium staff. The same omnipresent sound system, which constantly smothers us with an aural pillow of vapid nonsense, fell suddenly mute when all hell started breaking loose. A well-timed announcement – particularly if it was from Al Lerner or Butch Davis – would have headed off the bottle-throwing before it became epidemic. But, alas, our stadium sound people are more skilled at pounding weather reports and random Fan of the Game prizes into our heads than they are at crisis management.
We also won't be told about the contributing role of Jaguar players, who taunted the Cleveland faithful and motioned, idiotically, for fans to bring it on. The NFL will turn a blind eye, and Tom Jackson won't say a word.
The big picture will evade our 30-second analysts like it always does.
No one will reference the Browns getting ripped away from their loyal fans in 1995. They won't discuss the way the city was used by the NFL to extract new stadiums as NFL owners toyed with Cleveland fans like pet owners asking their dogs to beg for a treat. They won't talk about the two years of sometimes-horrific on-field embarrassment fans have paid large sums to endure, including humiliating blowout losses to our biggest rivals: the Steelers and Ravens.
The farthest thing from the minds of what passes for the sports media intelligentsia will be the heart-crushing disappointments that ended the 1986 and 1987 seasons…Red Right 88…Jose Mesa's meltdown against the Mariners. There will be no mention of Michael Jordan's magical fadeaway jumper at the buzzer to rip the heart out of the best Cavs team ever or of how Browns fans watched the Ravens win the Super Bowl for the backstabbing owner who sold them out.
As the lectures unfold, they will not discuss LTV Steel, whose bankruptcy has endangered the livelihood of thousands upon thousands of Browns fans. They won't talk about the effects of recession, which have created stresses many families haven't felt before. They won't talk about PSLs, or $6 beers, or how expensive tickets have kept some of the team's most loyal fans out except for a handful of games a year.
The commentators won't be able to fathom the frustration which has built up in Cleveland sports fans since our last meaningful championship nearly forty years ago. Disappointment after disappointment after disappointment. Always waiting. Always looking for a break that never comes in the sad waning days of 2001.
The frustration that overflowed the mind and wound up in the arm that held a bottle of beer.
* * *
December 16. Cleveland Browns Stadium. 4:05 PM
I feel the rage. I get back up on my feet and shout my disapproval in my loudest voice. I will be hoarse on Monday, but that's not an unusual event. In my time, I have developed some talent combining expletives into new and innovative forms. Tragically, my wholly appropriate commentary regarding likely pastimes of the officiating crew is lost in the din. Perhaps I'm slower than usual, because my anger is mixed with befuddlement.
Like most fans, I am fully aware of the rule stating that replays cannot occur after subsequent plays have been run. I am confused about how such an obvious miscarriage of rule interpretation could occur… how the officiating crew can jump back two plays. It is so obvious, so clear-cut. Second and goal from the nine, with a Jaguar team that already knows that it has been defeated. Three shots at the end zone with time running out.
With the official's bizarre call, a potential game-winning drive in the final seconds suddenly evaporates. Now we face another close loss, in a season full of them, which eliminates any hope of playoff contention. Another screw-job for Cleveland sports fans. Add this one to the pile.
I've mellowed with age, but I know the dark feeling of fan frustration. Been there, done that, have the scars on my psyche. Walls, tables, TV remotes, and even ceilings have felt my wrath following a bad turn of football fortune.
But the bottle of beer stays in my hand. I do not go running for the best angle to toss it at the head of an official.
I watch as the objects begin to arc towards the field. Yes, they are just plastic bottles partially full of beer, and most are simply tossed onto the field not close to anyone. But some are plummeting from several stories up. Some are being aimed at people. This is wrong.
Despite all the pain we have had to endure, we cannot walk the path of violence. We're better than that.
* * *
December 16, Cleveland Browns Stadium 5PM
Al Lerner and Carmen Policy, by refusing to disapprove, appear to approve. Lerner chatters absurdly about fans standing in the cold. They minimize the carnage, suggesting that the riot displays the fans "passion". No one was injured. No harm, no foul. Perhaps they're still stinging from 1999, when oppressive stadium security earned the wrath of many fans. This web site, in its previous incarnation as BrownsTNG, led the protest. Perhaps we deserve a portion of the blame for the tepid and inappropriate executive response.