The Cleveland Browns owe their fans a refund.
There really is no other way to say it. I suppose we could call it something else—perhaps a charitable contribution to the Sorry We Lied to You fund—or debate the economic practicality of any such measure. But regardless, the sentiment, no, the justified response to gross franchise mismanagement remains the same.
Jimmy Haslam, Joe Banner, Michael Lombardi and anyone who claims to be affiliated with the Browns' front office owe Browns fans a refund.
Imagine, for a second, that you are a working class Browns fan in the Cleveland metro area. You put in your 40 hours a week, maybe more. You make a living wage—not much, but enough, enough to afford a decent-sized shoebox in an unspectacular part of town. You've got a spouse and two kids, all Browns fans too.
As with most fans, football gets you through the monotony of the week. A conversation at the water cooler. A 15-minute break to read your favorite team blog when you just can't bring yourself to open one more spreadsheet. It's the language of hope, the steel that cuts through an otherwise dreary and boring lunch hour shared with George from HR and Marge from accounting. It's the light at the end of the Carpal tunnel, the lingering promise of a day where you can just be a Browns fan, and not employee number 3,455.
So imagine, then, that you sit down with your spouse, and begin to chart out your annual budget. You love the Browns. Your dad loved the Browns, as did his father before him. It's not just a team, and it's not just a game. It's a tradition. It's in your blood.
But it's also an expense. An expense valued at several thousand dollars. To the working class, an expense that often comes at the cost of something else. Maybe a nicer car. Maybe a vacation. Maybe that swimming pool you've always wanted to add.
Still, you can't put a price on tradition, and you like what the team has this year. No, you don't think they're going to the Super Bowl, but there's still that eternal seductress whispering in your ear, just as she does every year: maybe.
Maybe Trent Richardson, maybe Josh Gordon, maybe this team, maybe this time, maybe it's the Browns' year.
So, sold on the promise of a team with young playmakers and a bubbling cauldron of potential, you commit to season tickets. And beyond that, you commit to the drive in to the city, to parking, to feeding the family, to an odd jersey purchase or three, to a few Cokes for thirsty kids or a few beers for yourself at the suggestion of the scoreboard.
It's a commitment. It's a several-thousand-dollar commitment. But you watched the draft. You've seen the roster. Heck, you even took a Friday off to watch a bunch of grown men walk through training camp drills. This is your team. You know it. You love it. You don't mind paying for it.
And then, less than three weeks into the season, everything changes.
That running back you paid to watch? He gets traded to the Indianapolis Colts. Those young receivers that send you rocketing to your feet every time the ball is launched downfield? They're on the trade block.
Suddenly, the team you've invested in no longer resembles the team you paid to see.
What Haslam and Banner have done with the Browns' franchise is dishonest on a number of levels, and more the point, just wrong. It's not fair to players, players like Paul Kruger who were sold on a racehorse and left holding a rope leash on a three-legged donkey. It's not fair to fans, average blue-collar diehards who reserved a significant chunk of change with dreams of maybe, but the nightmare of a months-long demolition project. And it's not fair to the NFL, which deserves better than an fire sale in the first weeks of the season.
If the Browns want to blow up their franchise, fine, that's their call. They wouldn't be the first team to do it. Maybe they're enamored with some of the crown jewels of the 2014 NFL Draft—Louisville QB Teddy Bridgewater comes to mind in particular—and want to rebuild a new foundation with a new wave of talent. That's entirely fair. It may even be in the best long-term interests of the franchise.
But that's a decision you make in the offseason. That is not a decision you make in the first weeks of the regular season, when your team is still—at least theoretically—in contention.
And that is not a decision you make after you've sold free agents, fans and roster mainstays alike on one vision, just in time to yank the steering wheel and attempt a 180 through a concrete highway barrier. Not without at least seeing how far that tank of fuel will get you, at least.
You blow up teams before or after the season, or maybe, just maybe, during the season when you've lost all hope, when you have the same mathematical chance of playing in January as I do. Not less than three weeks into the season. Not after your offseason marketing efforts focused on players you're now willing to sell for a bag of Fritos.
So maybe the Browns "won" the Richardson trade. Maybe they will "win" the potential successive trades of Josh Gordon, Greg Little and God knows who else, given nothing is sacred in Cleveland these days. It will still require converting on a score of unknowns in future draft picks, but just for sake of argument, let's say they hit more than they miss, and come out with a rosier future as a result.
It still doesn't change the fact that they will have come by those results dishonestly, and with a complete slap in the face to season ticket holders and select Browns players as a result.
Normally, the refund argument is stupid. It's a town drunk with a loudspeaker, that one idiot who always calls into your local sports radio show and suggests radical recompense for a very simple mathematical product—one team just not being as good as the other, or the rest. I'm sure there were some calling for Jim Irsay to refund Indianapolis Colts fans after a 2011 season in which a Yakety Sax triumvirate of Kerry Collins, Curtis Painter and Dan Orlovsky quarterbacked the team in the injury-related absence of Peyton Manning.
But then, the Colts were taken by surprise with the severity and duration of Manning's injury. They didn't tank, so much as they didn't have a Plan B. I have a feeling, if you dive into NFL history and look at teams with the worst records, they came by them fairly honestly; they just didn't have answers for injuries or setbacks, and consequentially didn't have the talent to laud themselves as victors.
Make no mistake, the Browns are tanking, though. If they at least had a fighting chance before, they've essentially paid a visit to Dr. Christian Szell and plucked their teeth from their gums before even bothering to snarl.
It's dishonest. It's wrong. And it shouldn't go unpunished.
We can author as many mock drafts as we wish, and imagine a future where this year will have made sense for the Browns. That's fine. No one is saying the strategy isn't at least sensible.
But if you're a Browns season ticket holder, I bet you're wishing you were sitting by your swimming pool right now, and contemplating filling its basin with enough whiskey to get you through this circus act of a season.
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