FEAR AND LOATHING: A Passage To Reality

Beyond The Belly Of The Beast - If You Come to Cleveland, Be Sure To Wear A Hardhat Over Your Hair - Mistakes By The Lake - Why Is The Press A Gang Of Villains And Idiots?

''Why, foolish Lucius, dost thou not perceive Rome is a wilderness of tigers?''- Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, Act III, Scene I

CLEVELAND - The lights at Cleveland Browns Stadium blazed long into the blue Lake Erie night.

The gridiron cathedral of concrete and steel appeared from the street to be empty, but work crews inside labored to remove evidence of an afternoon not soon to be forgotten by Clevelanders.

The stadium was a crime scene Sunday night, and it had nothing to do with plastic beer bottles.

With brooms and mops, hundreds of nameless, faceless people in blue and red overcoats worked long into the darkness to erase the tangible reminders of the misdeeds and transgressions committed just hours before under a heavy December sky. By morning, little remained to let the world know another dream had died in the swirling, frigid winds of this Great Lakes city.

A sad spectacle played itself out Sunday afternoon at the stadium. In the game's waning moments, a never-say-die Browns team seemed to have conjured some of the old magic long since thought dead by the lake. But in the zap of a buzzer, it was taken away.

The faithful raged. They raged against the proverbial dying of the light. The physical manifestation of that helpless, frustrated anger should have taken no one by surprise, not even a first-year referee. Not in a place with a reputation justly earned so many years ago, when Cleveland Municipal Stadium was a place where angels feared to tread.

Yet today, we find the city of Cleveland and its football fans in the harsh glare of the national spotlight. Criticism erupted from all corners, but most of it is easy to dismiss because the critics were not there. Nor did they take the time to consider events within their context. I don't mean justification, but tempering the indignation by placing Sunday's unrest in a sociological perspective beyond calling the fans "barbarians."

There's no need to revisit the game's final moments. The truth will never be known. And it's likely there are several truths to what transpired in the press of a button, the snap of a ball, the blink of an eye. But we can find a reason for Sunday's eruption of unbridled fury.

Referee Terry McAulay's signal of a Jacksonville first down, like the command to the English archers at Agincourt, prompted thousands of angry fans to unleash volley after volley of beer bottles - and any other items not bolteddown - in the general direction of the officials and the field.

The madness and rage cascading from the stands wasn't just about a terribly botched call.

Instead, it was the corporal expression of frustration of Americans unable to strike back since Sept. 11.

Yes, Cleveland, like the rest of the nation, has gained some sense of satisfaction from the military campaign in Afghanistan, but that's not always enough. Not for a family that cares so deeply for its pro football team.

For many, the feeling of helplessness and anger bottled up - no pun intended - needed a tangible release. And the mismanaged replay at the end of Sunday's game was the final insult for the citizens of a city that has weathered more than its share of pain, suffering and frustration through the years.

Cleveland Browns fan were livid, but they brought some of that anger to the stadium. The bungled replay incident was the catalyst. For some that day, the burden of yet another baffling Browns defeat - this one seemingly at the hands of the league - was too much. With worries about more terrorism, anthrax, a recession economy, hemorrhaging layoffs and war, the football game was something at which frustrated fans could strike back.

I'm not saying it was right or wrong. Not my job. I'm merely relating why I think it happened. As for myself, I didn't send any items aloft - I don't drink domestic beer in plastic bottles. But my stadium brethren quaff the foul stuff with reckless abandon. But don't be foolish enough to think the broadside of bottles was only the work of drunkards and hooligans. Joe Average Fan had a hand in it, too.

Again, without offering excuses or justification, let's put what happened in some context. Al Lerner was right, it wasn't World War III. It was rather silly and somewhat dangerous, but it wasn't a riot. No one was seriously injured, not much property was damaged and the sun still came up somewhere in the world Monday.

Arrests were made. More will likely follow. Fine. Punish the stupid. But don't treat it as anything more than what it was: angry people throwing some plastic bottles on the field at a football game.

Somehow, the republic didn't collapse. Yet the talking heads and columnists would have the nation think that Clevelanders are weird and twisted from birth, that there's something inherently wrong with us.

The feigned indignation from the feckless national media, and even blowhard dunces like the Plain Dealer's Bill Livingston, was to be expected. Most writers and broadcasters in any press box border on criminally stupid and have little grasp of reality beyond free beer and box scores.

Instead, when something happens like what occurred Sunday, journalists collectively grandstand, madly flipping through dog-eared thesauruses for impressive words as they pound out paeans to their false fury and ersatz righteous anger.

It's what right-thinking citizens want from their respectable press corps, right?

Yes, but it's also a steaming pile of raven turds from a gang of wretches so crooked that they wet themselves when discussions of ethics, accuracy and fairness come up. Anyone with a developed sense of right and wrong - even sports writers - should have had the urge to hurl something at the field. And if they had that urge, even muffled, they've no right to castigate others for acting out. Common sense dictates that throwing bottles is dumb and dangerous. Does anyone really need Bill Livingston to tell them that?

Perhaps we need to look to our past for a reference point. Thomas Jefferson, whose marble likeness sits not far from the stadium in front of the Cuyahoga County courthouse, perhaps summed up Sunday's escapade best: "I hold it that a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing …"

I don't know what Mr. Jefferson would have thought of Sunday. He likely would have been mortified by the display of ignorance of fans and officials, yet he likely would have understood how it happened and not bellowed from the nearest soapbox about the intrinsic evilness of Clevelanders.

Football games, especially in Cleveland, are not antiseptic events. Nor should they be. Along Lake Erie, I expect - for better or worse - the melting pot of humanity to sometimes act on its emotions. And emotions have seen such highs and lows in the history of the Browns. I'm prepared for that going in. The stadium is a rowdy place, where the roughnecks of society mingle with tee-totaling bluebloods whose only common bond is a football team that's synonymous with heartbreak.

All that was immaterial Sunday night. The game was over, and Cleveland's long-shot playoff hopes were but a distant memory. The road to redemption would take another year.

By Monday morning, the streets if Cleveland were back to normal. It was a cold December dawn, quiet but for the sound of cars on the rain-swept asphalt. Manhole covers belched steam. A steady drizzle soaked the city to its bones while a thick morning fog crept in from the lake.

Cleveland Browns Stadium sat dark on the shore, the life within extinguished until next fall. Wind and rain whipped across my face. Only the long drive back to Michigan lay before me now. It was time to go home.

Doc Gonzo is a former Ohio newspaper reporter and editor. He now lives in a remote part of Michigan's Thumb, safe from knaves, fools and Ratbirds. He can be reached at docgonzo19@aol.com.

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