Opinion: Better than They Deserve
As Browns fans, we often consider ourselves to be the exemplar of dedication, at least as it comes to supporting a professional sports franchise. After all, we're still here, still passionate, after forty-plus years of Super Bowl frustration, betrayal by an owner and expansion era struggle.
We live in a world where the football Gods seem determined to torment us, as if we were secular beer-swilling versions of Job, visiting us with torment after torment to see if we can maintain our faith. Yet we stay at our posts.
I'm still hanging in there. I hope you are, too.
It's not fashionable to feel this way, and it may strike some as curious, but I've found myself oddly empathetic to the challenges faced by Browns owner Randy Lerner in recent weeks.
I realize that we're not supposed to like Lerner. The team stinks, after all. I'm a small business owner who actually competes with some of Mr. Lerner's employees in some ways, and watches while his franchise spends money in a way that would bankrupt me.
Not only that, but Lerner went out and bought a soccer club. Only purchasing a badminton or synchronized swimming franchise would have a greater chance of bringing a perplexed look of faint nausea to the face of an average Browns fan like myself*.
Still, thanks to the Cleveland media, I'm starting to like Randy Lerner more and more.
But let's take a step back and see what Lerner has done, and what he's enduring.
I think back to an Open Letter I wrote to Lerner when he stepped in to take control of the franchise after the Carmen Policy/Butch Davis era panic-attacked its way to a humiliating close.
In my front page story, I pleaded with Lerner to get Browns alumni involved in the organization. I told him to go out and hire Ozzie Newsome to run his operation. I asked him to stay out of Browns football matters and be a nearly invisible owner, allowing football men to run the organization. I asked him to avoid increasing the price of tickets, lowering them if possible.
He's done exactly what I prescribed, in large part. Sure, he hired Newsome's right-hand man rather than the genuine, unavailable, article, but that was as close as he could get. A story unreported from yesterday's session with Phil Savage is that the team will again hold the line on ticket prices.
That's not to say that I agree with all the decisions the team has made. I have argued that Lerner needs to take a look at the structure of his org chart. Today, we published an editorial by Rich Passan which argues that the team badly needs a strong football man at the top of the organization. At this point, though, the chaos and role confusion brought on by such a move might cause the organization to lose focus at a critical time.
The team has certainly struggled on the field, but upon some off-season reflection, I would argue that their current predicament has little to do with Lerner's desire to spend money on his franchise or his attention to it.
As I asked in 2004, he has let his football men run the organization. I will still maintain that the true source of the team's struggles has been some of the most inept personnel selection in NFL history from 1999-2003. Combined with the normal struggles of expansion and some horrible luck with injuries, the Browns have never been able to get much traction outside of the single free-agent powered season of 2002.
Whether you agree or disagree with Lerner's decisions, however, nothing that he has done, or not done, merits the vicious and uninformed nature of the press coverage he has received this off-season.
Perhaps my negative reaction to press coverage truly stems from an editorial I wrote mid-season borne out of my own frustration with the franchise. I've second-guessed myself since then both in print and elsewhere, but such introspection seems to be missing from some of the nonsense tossed at Lerner in recent weeks.
The attacks on the Browns owner started off with an editorial from non-sports columnist Phillip Morris, which likely ran somewhere in the Plain Dealer's odious opinion section, although it was happily hoisted up for sports fans by the newspaper's pageview-crazed web site.
Morris, who seems to have instructed the Plain Dealer's photographer to get take a photo of himself which "makes me look as unctuous and slap-deserving as possible", clearly has a knowledge of football which would make us think back on real-state tracker Roger Brown as a pigskin genius.
This is evidenced by Morris' contention that 6'0" quarterback Troy Smith is "simply the best player in college football" who should be a critical piece of the Browns future. His analysis about Smith - who is likely to be picked well outside the top echelon of the draft - was buttressed by, well, nothing.
That's great, Phillip. The lady who cuts my hair (inexpensively) thinks that Charlie Frye is adorable. In my mind, your opinion cancels out hers in terms of credible input to my analysis of the Browns quarterback situation.
Likewise unsubstantiated was Morris' contention that Lerner's purchase of a soccer team somehow effects the product that the team puts on the field each weekend. Morris has no suggestions for what Lerner could do to improve the situation, no advice on how his involvement would fix things. Nothing. Just complaint and hot air, signifying nothing other than a desire to get the attention of sports fans who would rather shout about anger than think about possible solutions.
How can one defend oneself against fact and analysis-free garbage like the Plain Dealer foisted on the public?
It's impossible, as the Browns learned when they tried to respond. Holding one's nose and pointing at the garbage doesn't help. My advice to them would be simply to walk away from the rotting verbiage and hope that the owners come around to clean it up at some point.
As vacuous and transparent as the Plain Dealer's opinion page can be, it pales next to the content-free attacks fired at Lerner by an angry and frustrated local tabloid show calling itself "Action News Weather Enquirer 19". Or something like that.
Taking a single sentence from the team's response to Morris, Channel 19 offered up a segment,heavily hyped on the Super Bowl, asking pointedly if Lerner was going to sell the club. The inference of possible disaster for a fan base only a decade away from extracting its last owner's knife from its collective back doesn't need to be belabored
Putting together Lerner's soccer club purchase with a vague suggestion by a Browns spokesman to Morris that another owner wouldn't necessarily be better, Channel 19 created out of whole cloth an "investigative report" that suggested that Lerner would be happy to ditch the Browns.
The facts, however, are completely at odds with 19's story, since Lerner has repeatedly denied any interest in selling the club, and has
maintained that he has never entertained offers.
Channel 19 has treated Lerner viscously since the Browns owner pulled pre-season coverage from the bottom-feeding station after they - and they alone - made the repugnant decision to air a 911 tape of a call made after the sad and tragic loss if Lerner's niece.
Channel 19's decision then, and behavior since, has me tracking and avoiding their local advertisers. This is made harder by my lack of interest in watching their newscasts, which are apparently written for and by fourth-graders with a disturbing case of blood-lust.
I would suggest a similar course of avoiding Channel 19 advertisers for other Browns fans as a way of voicing their displeasure with the station's repeated, unfair, and transparent attack coverage on the franchise.
Like the team's attempt to answer Morris, the attempt to answer Channel 19 didn't work out.
In an untaped interview with supposedly-friendly TV station Channel 3, the station's news anchor Ramona Robinson tried to create a news story out of a tongue-in-cheek answer by Lerner that he liked LSU QB Jamarcus Russell as the team's top draft pick. Russell is currently felt to be a slam-dunk pick for the Raiders at the top of the draft.
The way the draft appears to break down would make Lerner's remark irrelevant, a notion seemingly lost on local TV news. Russell will be as available as Lerner's remark is important in the annual Spring festival of half-truths and bald-faced lies which precedes the draft. Any football fan with the mental capability to operate a TV remote knows this, but it makes little difference as the quest for ratings supersedes any notion of a quest for truth.
Randy Lerner is a still-new owner who had his stewardship of the Browns thrust upon him in the least happy of ways. While it's undeniably been a learning experience, and while the team continues to struggle, Lerner certainly has not displayed the inept and meddling ways of past pro sports owners in Cleveland. He does not deserve what the local media has done to him.
Is Randy Lerner the owner that Browns fans deserve? That question is unanswered, and likely will be for some time to come. What is known is that Lerner is better at being a steward of the franchise than some in local media are at reporting on it.
We don't know if Randy Lerner will be the owner we deserve, but, when it comes to the local media, he's already proven that he's a better owner than they deserve.
* Fans of Ramona Robinson, bad investigative journalism, and uninformed editorialists may send hate mail to OBR publisher Barry McBride at the painfully obvious email address of barry @ theobr.com, You may also send me hate mail if you feel all football fans would like English league soccer if we were just a little more erudite. If none of the above apply to you, feel free also to send me email, although you run the risk of being taken seriously.
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