The Browns and the Obsession with Winning

While the world is consumed with more serious matters of war and international politics, football fans have still been paying attention to the NFL offseason, where their favorite teams try to bolster their rosters in preparation for next year.  The offseason is always fun for a football fan, even the casual fan.  Players whose production dropped off find a second life with another team and city.  Teams rid themselves malcontents who didn’t fit in with the city, the organization, or the other players.  

This week, the Cleveland Browns — the lovable losers of football — made a splash by trading Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, who did not play last season due to considerable legal problems.  Watson faced allegations of sexual misconduct from 22 separate women.  Yes, 22 separate women.  Each one of the women claimed, in a similar pattern, that Watson attempted to pressure them into sexual acts, exhibited lewd behavior, and, in at least two instances, the incidents rose to the level of criminal complaints for sexual assault.  Watson maintained the stance that he never coerced any woman into sex, and the allegations are false.  

Earlier this month, a Harris County grand jury met to consider the criminal complaints against Watson and did not return an indictment, meaning Watson will not face criminal charges.  The news prompted NFL teams to reach out to the Houston Texans to broker a trade for Watson.  (Before the accusations against Watson, the relationship between the quarterback and the Texans’ management was on shaky ground.  The Texans understood they had to rid themselves of Watson.)

This week, the Cleveland Browns arranged a deal to acquire Watson in exchange for multiple future draft picks.  In addition, the Browns tendered a five year contract worth an astonishing $230 million.  Watson now becomes the highest paid player in NFL history and he hasn’t played a game in over a year.  

Why were teams so eager to trade for Watson?

Of course the comments were limited …

Several teams contacted the Texans to trade for Watson.  Along with the Browns, the Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, and New Orleans Saints were all contenders to make a deal for the beleaguered quarterback.  Why is this the case?  For the non-football fan, quarterback is undoubtedly the most important position in professional football.  NFL teams do not win Super Bowls without a top tier quarterback, and make no mistake, Deshaun Watson possesses the ability to lead a team to football glory.  In the 2020 season, he led the league in passing yards and finished second in overall quarterback rating at the age of 24.  Organizations build the rest of their team around this type of player.

In the case of the Cleveland Browns, the situation is a bit more dire.  The Browns are one of only four teams in the league who have yet to play in a Super Bowl (and two of the others are expansion teams who haven’t been in the league nearly as long).  Browns fans are notoriously difficult to please, and their previous quarterback, Baker Mayfield, has not lived up to their expectations.  

In 2018, the Browns used the number one overall draft pick on Mayfield, believing him to be the ‘franchise quarterback’ they had sought for so long.  He was supposed to lead them to the Super Bowl.  And he appeared on the verge of a breakthrough in 2020, when Mayfield and the Browns won their first playoff game in over two decades against divisional foe Pittsburgh.  The next week, they had defending champion Kansas City Chiefs on the ropes in a wild playoff loss.

This past season was supposed to be the year for the Browns.  Instead, they faced a massive letdown when all the pieces were in place for a great season.  Their 11-5 playoff season transformed into an 8-9 flop where they had to watch in-state rival Cincinnati reach the Super Bowl with the world preening over Joe Burrow.

The Browns made this move because they are desperate to win.  They haven’t won their division since 1989.  Playoff wins are scarce.  And let’s not start on their inability to reach, let alone win the Super Bowl.  The Browns have reached a level of desperation which caused them to spend a king’s ransom on a quarterback that still has 22 lawsuits pending.  

The NFL puts product over people every single time 

Americans enjoy the game.  It’s uniquely American and doesn’t exist in the minds of the rest of the world.  Football combines athleticism, strategy, and mental fortitude — parts of humanity America values (perhaps too much).  But the nation forgets the NFL is a business.  After all, Americans value capitalism too.

The NFL aims to turn a profit and ticket sales and television viewership represent key aspects of generating the money machine that is professional football.  The league will always do what’s in its best interest financially.

In the last two decades, a number of NFL players or coaches faced disciplinary actions from the league’s commissioner regarding their on and off field conduct.  Players such as Aaron Hernandez and Rae Carruth were convicted of murder, so obviously they weren’t going to play any longer. 

In other instances of high profile players, the NFL’s actions depended on the market.  The NFL seems to gauge which way the proverbial wind is blowing before rendering a decision. 

  • Superstar quarterback Michael Vick was suspended for involvement in a dog fighting ring in 2007.  The NFL waited until Vick pled guilty to suspend him, but the outrage from the public, including the United States Congress, undoubtedly weighed on the NFL’s decision.
  • In 2014, Former Baltimore running back Ray Rice received a year long suspension for domestic abuse charges and was subsequently released by his team.  However, the NFL didn’t suspend Rice for a year initially.  NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell decided to suspend Rice only for two games along with mandating counseling.  It was only after significant public outrage did Goodell reverse course and admit he erred.  
  • Who could forget O.J. Simpson and his trial for the murder of his ex-wife?  Though Simpson was found not guilty, the NFL and all former business associates of the former running back dropped any connection with him because he was toxic.  The nation believed he was guilty.  The NFL couldn’t afford to associate with him.

The NFL doesn’t care whether or not these people were guilty.  They cared about public perception because that dictates the market.

There isn’t enough time or space here to chronicle the NFL’s response to each instance of player misbehavior. (However, if you are interested, a dedicated journalist did create a database of NFL arrests, charges, and other legal issues since the year 2000 and it’s … extensive.)

If this isn’t convincing, consider the NFL’s repeated dismissals of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a condition incurred through repeated blows to the head.  Typically associated with boxers, CTE began to appear in many former football players who experienced symptoms associated with an early onset of dementia.  Some of these players felt had headaches so severe, they eventually killed themselves.  Roger Goodell and previous NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue dismissed the concessions in the game, ignoring medical reports and research from doctors.  Why?  It was bad for the game, and the financial bottom line.  (Check out this chilling timeline of events in the NFL’s dismissal of a serious problem.)  To mitigate potential fallout from liability, the NFL not only changed its rules and equipment, but settled a lawsuit with retired players for $765 million.  The league admitted no wrongdoing as part of the settlement.  

Revenues trend up for the NFL

Professional football is a multibillion dollar industry.  That’s right — it’s an industry.  The games, the television contracts, fantasy football, merchandise, stadium food and other paraphernalia.  In the 2019 season, the NFL generated a record high $15.26 billion in revenue.  That number increases every year (2020 excepted due to the pandemic).  For context, the NFL generates more revenue than the film industry, pornography, the music business, or any other professional sport.  

From 1942 until 2015, the NFL registered as a tax exempt, non-profit organization.  Commissioner Goodell ended the NFL’s registration as a non-profit, sending a memo to all team owners, noting in it:

As you know, the effects of the tax exempt status of the league office have been mischaracterized repeatedly in recent years. The fact is that the business of the NFL has never been tax exempt. Every dollar of income generated through television rights fees, licensing agreements, sponsorships, ticket sales, and other means is earned by the 32 clubs and is taxable there. This will remain the case even when the league office and Management Council file returns as taxable entities, and the change in filing status will make no material difference to our business. As a result, the Committees decided to eliminate this distraction. [Emphasis added]

Goodell dropped the tax exempt status because it’s about the public perception.  The NFL cares about the money.

The NFL is a symptom of a bigger issue 

Maybe football began as a pure thing, a better part of American values.  Now, though, it reflects the ugly nature of the United States.  Somewhere, the Cleveland Browns, and the entire NFL, sacrificed any semblance of corporate responsibility so they could win — whether that occurs on the field or in the bank.  Cleveland wants to win a Super Bowl so badly and it doesn’t matter that their new quarterback possibly sexually assaulted women.  Houston only wanted rid of a nightmare scenario for its team.  The NFL likely won’t take any further action because Watson won’t have a criminal conviction and generally speaking, fans won’t have a problem moving forward.  

Fans didn’t have a problem when former Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger continuing a stellar football career after he encountered a similar situation.  He was accused of sexual assault in 2010 and no criminal charges were filed, however he did settle a lawsuit out of court for an undisclosed amount of money.

Ray Lewis, former Baltimore linebacker, faced a potential murder trial over the deaths of two individuals in Atlanta in 2000.  Lewis pled guilty to the lesser charge of obstruction of justice in exchange for testimony against suspects arrested for the crime.  There has long been suspicion Lewis knows more about the crime than he admitted, particularly considering he lied to police about his whereabouts of the time of the murder initially.  Lewis’ career rebounded and now he’s in the NFL Hall of Fame.  Baltimore even placed a statue of Lewis outside their stadium.  

Roethlisberger and Lewis have recovered their image and found themselves in the good graces of the NFL and fans.  There’s a decent chance Watson will also.  What’s the difference between these guys and the likes of Ray Rice or Michael Vick?  The only difference is we can’t be sure about Roethlisberger or Lewis.  With Rice, we had video evidence of him hitting his fiancée.  Vick pled guilty.  There’s no football redemption for them.  The NFL knows it can’t sell that to people.

With respect to Roethlisberger and Lewis, or now Watson, fans cannot say whether they are definitively guilty.  So choose to ignore under the auspices of ‘innocent until proven guilty.’  This is what we tell ourselves because we want to win too.  But it didn’t start with football.

The political world has long operated under this paradigm.  Numerous allegations surfaced against former President Bill Clinton since the 1970s.  When he first ran for president, this was not a new issue.  When the House of Representatives impeached Clinton, Republicans decried the loss of morality and principles in the nation.  Democrats defended the president and claimed Clinton’s affair with a White House intern and his lie about it under oath were not a serious crime.   

In 2016, Republicans quickly abandoned their own principles in nominating Donald Trump and supporting him despite some of the more unbecoming moral failures of any occupant of the White House.  President Trump’s now infamous comments about women in footage from Access Hollywood led to fierce criticism about his own morality and treatment of women.  That sentiment was fueled by the discovery that President Trump once paid to have sex with an adult film star. 

Both parties managed to flip their stances on what defined morality and their love of ‘winning,’ or in this case, embarrassing the other tribe, was more important than doing the right thing.  In the cases of both Clinton and Trump, there was plenty of evidence suggesting they were both morally flawed, but the parties didn’t care.  All they could think about was how to spin the news and not lose elections.  To think this begins and ends with Clinton or Trump is bonkers.  Politicians fail to live up to society’s moral expectations and their party defends them.  They just provide the best examples of the indiscretions and hypocrisy.

It’s difficult to say where the fundamental failure in principled belief started but the ‘win at all costs’ mentality harms the nation as a whole, and the personal growth of individuals.  

We see it in small places, like when parents excuse the poor behavior of their children that that would seethe at if it came from another child. 

‘Climbing the corporate ladder’ means stealing ideas or credit from others to become a somebody in the work environment.  Stepping on someone else’s head to arrive at the top is part of the game.  

The television show Survivor might be one of the best displays of the win at all costs mentality. It encourages individual treachery and base tribalism.  There’s a reason the show has aired for a staggering 42 seasons.  Contestants will literally do anything to win and millions of viewers tune in to watch.

Remember when ESPN aired The Last Dance documentary? Fans of basketball marveled at Michael Jordan recount his cutthroat nature in leading the Chicago Bulls to six NBA titles. However, in the process of winning, Jordan seems to have alienated friends and family. He oozes arrogance, and normally society shuns that. But Jordan gets a pass because he dominated his sport.

Humans want to win because we want to show superiority.  We want to stand out and distinguish ourselves.  The thought of being ordinary terrifies Americans even though we mostly understand we are ordinary.  If we can live vicariously through our sports team, president, child, or any other facet of the world, then that’s good enough.  As long as we won.  Hypocrisy is the price for victory.

For the Browns organization, it’s a price they’re willing to pay.  I don’t know how they find their soul after selling out on a level like this.  The team’s ownership already started the public relations work by issuing a statement about the extensive research they placed into this process, including serious conversations with Watson, who they described as “humble, sincere, and candid.”  Did that extensive research include talking to Watson’s 22 accusers?  Doubt it.

The Dawg Pound isn’t too keen on the Watson deal

Apparently, the front office did not take into consideration the thoughts of their fans, who were not all pleased with the trade.  Numerous fans took to social media to skewer the owners, but the best roast came from Marla Ridenour, who covers the Browns for the Akron Beacon Journal.  She wrote a blistering piece about the trade, and point blank said the Browns wanted a Super Bowl and the financial windfall that comes with it.  

Browns fans strongly disapproved of the Watson trade.  For them, a Super Bowl isn’t worth that much.  Ironically, hope for America to reject the win at all costs mantra comes from one of the rowdiest fan bases in all of sports.  Who knew they would set the example?  Not me.

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