Cleveland Browns fans are special, we told ourselves, and we all believed it.
Back in 1998, in the time after expansion was declared, but before Al Lerner and Carmen Policy arrived, all there was of my fan website called "BrownsTNG" was a couple of pages saying that we don't celebrate players, but rather that they celebrate us. I put pictures of Jim Brown, Otto Graham, and the site's future namesake on the pages.
We honor them by allowing them to wear the colors that represent our town, I wrote.
The only thing that matters is the fans and the way football brings us together, I said.
But that doesn't correlate with what I've been seeing these last four years. What I have seen contradicts itself: The same stadium crowd that is upset enough to throw bottles at referees bolts the stadium in the third quarter when the team looks bad. The same stadium crowd that is angry enough and upset enough to boo their own team leaves half the seats empty at the start of the game and after halftime.
None of it makes intuitive sense.
Then I remember what we said back in 1996.
We just didn't realize that it would happen here.
* * *
In my little row in the highest regions of the upper deck, to the left of us there is a lady who travels hundreds of miles to see each game. She was angry when she saw cheerleaders earlier this year and bit her nails during a close exhibition game. To our right is a husband and wife, who have come to games unfailingly for decades, and now struggle up the endless stairs to our perches high above the west end zone every weekend they can.
None of us are too rowdy, none of us get too drunk to see. I'm generally the loudest, most inebriated and rowdiest in our row, but I've never caused a "hospitality" person to issue a call for security. None of us cheered when Tim Couch got hurt. Some of us stood up and cheered as he made his way off the field. A couple of us booed when there were bad calls by the officials or lame play selections by the offensive coordinator.
We're fans. Not "true fans". Not "real fans". Just fans who high-five, smile, cheer and laugh with things go well. Just fans who try to keep the light of optimism faintly burning when things aren't going well, or get grumpy and a little bit quieter when the team plays as appallingly bad as it did Sunday night.
We represent, a casual estimate would say, about 60% of the crowd at Cleveland Browns Stadium. Still the majority.
* * *
We predicted a thousand times that this would happen, as a small and disturbingly focused group of fans continued to chatter on the Internet while the Browns were on hiatus. We talked about such things because, well, there wasn't much else to talk about other than my other favorite topic, namely, making fun of the Ravens.
We were smart enough to know that the movement of teams around the country, and the runaway greed, would slowly but surely replace fans with spectators. I know, because I read it and wrote it a million times. The NFL will pay for their greed, we said, when the fans leave and the spectators arrive.
Heads would nod in quick agreement, replies of confirming praise would fly across the digital ether. We knew the difference, we told ourselves.
Fans are loyal. Spectators are not.
Fans care about the game and whether or not we win. Spectators want to be part of a show.
Fans drink beer because they want to have a good time and loosen up while they cheer on their team. Spectators drink because it's what you do at a party.
Fans know the difference between a football player hurt on the field and a WWE wrestler feigning injury. Spectators do not.
There is nothing wrong, nothing evil, nothing lesser about a spectator. They don't deserve scorn. They just have a different set of priorities than football fans. Save your scorn for those who decided that the difference between a fan and a spectator wasn't big enough to concern the New NFL.
* * *
There are a lot of reasons why so many football fans have been replaced by football spectators. Certainly some fans dropped off when the NFL allowed Modell to move the team and didn't return. More got priced out of the Stadium by the PSLs and other high-priced elements of attendance. The NFL and the team's new ownership didn't put the proper worth on the asset that had been created on the shores of Lake Erie: dedicated, loyal, intense Browns fans who wanted to be at every game.
The problem isn't the "cell-phone carrying yuppie" that I constantly read about. I'm sure that there are folks like that running around, but not enough to create what we've seen the last four years. There's a big corporate crowd, and certainly a number of those folks fall into the "spectator" category. But a lot are just fans like you and me.
I suspect that some people who were fans have mutated into spectators, unwilling to give the team the unconditional loyalty they gave it in the past. They sit everywhere, not just in the expensive seats.
They've seen their friends tossed out of the Stadium and distrusted by security. They've seen the Dawg Pound muzzled and scorned by the same people who want to market it with cartoon dogs emblazoned on merchandise. They've been in their seats at the start of the game, only to be lectured that they shouldn't throw things, drink too much, or swear. They have had their chants and shouts of support blown away by marketing crap on the PA a hundred times. They've seen the team lose and lose and lose. They've tried, and got tired, and now the unconditional loyalty has been replaced by something else.
The seeds planted by the revenue-crazed National Football League have been in the ground since 1995. Now, they don't like the crop they've harvested. Nor should they.
We tried to tell them, but they never listened.
* * *
I'm at a loss as to what to do. It isn't a matter of greater security, as it seems like we're already all treated like potential criminals. It isn't a matter of bringing out cheerleaders or asking the crowd to be loud. It isn't a matter of muting the Muni tailgates or forcing them to drink from plastic cups. All that has been done, and we've seen what happens.
If any good comes out of last Sunday night, though, it may be that some folks who were at the Stadium are going through a little reflection right now. Maybe they're thinking about why they come to the games and how they relate to the team. Maybe some spectators will turn into fans.
The conversion from fan to spectator is reversible. Winning helps, but so perhaps will Tim Couch's explosion late Sunday night.
Couch is a truly good guy. He makes himself available to the press, and helps in the community. If anything, he may press to hard, work out a little too much. Maybe realizing that someone like that is hurting will help turn this around.
I read and collated over five hundred posts and emails from Browns fans on our boards to Tim Couch this week. The fans are still out there, many living far way, many forced to watch on TV by the excessive costs. They still love this team. Maybe, when the spectators tire of the spectacle, they will have an opportunity to return.
There is hope that the old karma will return, but it will take time.
I've got another idea as well, for my friends in Berea.
Perhaps instead of having a "Get Loud for the Browns" campaign offered up by the team complete with cheerle