Hillis Gone in 2012 Thanks to Controversies? Call It the "LeBron James Effect"
If you're somebody who likes a happy ending, Cleveland has never been the place to set up your sports fairy tale.
The Drive, The Shot, The Fumble, The Pitch and a million other smaller things have all condemned Cleveland sports fans to living in the same nightmare of disappointment and frustration over and over.
And now unfortunately, we seem to have entered a whole new dimension of tragic endings for our teams where the heartbreak stems from things that happen off the field, rather than on it.
The latest installments of this have all revolved around Peyton Hillis, but the fan reactions to the way the whole mess has unfolded go back to Thursday July 8th, 2010 when ex-Cavs star LeBron James announced on his own ESPN special that he would be "taking his talents to South Beach."
The history of what happened with James becomes fuzzier as it recedes into the past, but essentially, the announcement shocked the loyal fans of his hometown team. They were expecting James, who they all trusted implicitly at that point, to say he planned to remain their local hero for years to come.
Instead, Cleveland got the shock of its sports life as James instead used the national media segment to announce he was skipping off to Miami and leaving Cleveland in the lurch.
Our rage over that has begun to subside, but it has left all of us Cleveland sports fans with an acute case of paranoia. Sure, we've been paranoid that things would go wrong on the field for our teams for a very long time, but this was a new form of betrayal. We'd seen our stars choke in-game and our dreams slip away because of it plenty of times, but this was different. This was a conscious act of betrayal.
Enter Peyton Hillis, the dominant running back with a heart of gold who claimed to bleed orange and brown. He was supposed to be the answer to LeBron. He was supposed to renew our faith in Cleveland sports. Show us someone really did love us as much as we loved them. Teach us to trust again.
And then, after a monster first season for the Browns and a video-game cover that led to national exposure, the fairy tale ending we all thought Hillis was going to bring us started to unravel.
Rumors flew about why Hillis missed a game due to supposedly having strep throat and then about why he missed more games due to a hamstring injury. Was it because his contract negotiations were going south? Was it the dreaded Madden Curse? Did he just want out of Cleveland?
Regardless of what exactly the "why" was, the prevailing opinion was that Hillis was going to screw over the Cleveland faithful. After several weeks of the Hillis media soap opera, most folks had concluded that he was one fake hamstring injury away from skipping off to wherever his own South Beach was.
Before what happened with James, Cleveland fans would likely have been loathe to jump to such a conclusion without all the facts. We had trusted and adored Hillis.
This was a man who just months prior, was quoted as saying "This team, this city, even the colors, represent who I am. As an individual, as a person and as a player."
We believed him when he said it. Maybe in our desperation to find a new hero to replace James, we believed him too much. But either way, the point was that when he made that statement, everything he had done prior to that backed it up.
We trusted him because we wanted to, but mostly because we had no reason not to.
The problem, of course, was that we'd made the exact same mistake with James. Up until the moment his ESPN special aired, most of us thought he was telling the truth when he said he wanted to be the hometown hero for Cleveland for the rest of his career.
Then, not only were we burned on that front, we had to suffer the embarrassment of being abandoned by our own savior on national television. The whole country knew James had played us all for a fool.
So when that same national media outlet broke the story that Hillis was unhappy in Cleveland and had perhaps deliberately sat out of a game while faking illness to protest his contract negotiations and angle for a ticket out of town, our paranoia kicked in and we assumed Hillis was about to become the next James.
The local media piled on right along with ESPN, triggering the fans to follow suit, and before long, we all assumed Hillis' bags were as good as packed.
Unfortunately, we still don't know—and may never know—what Hillis' intentions were at that point. But we'd seen this show before and we knew how it ended. Our experience with James taught us that if it looks like a duck and it walks like a duck, it probably plans to take its talents elsewhere.
Thus the whole Hillis controversy appealed to our paranoia thanks to a the trickle-down effect of what had happened less than two years' prior with James.
Browns fans turned on Hillis almost immediately. It was self-protection. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, and I'll buy your bus ticket to Miami myself.
Whatever you think of Hillis and his intentions, it's important to acknowledge that our judgment, as Cleveland fans, is somewhat clouded in such matters thanks to what happened with James.
In a way, it does go back to Art Modell, the initial source of our city-wide abandonment issues, but at least we mostly knew that one was coming. Nobody ever confused Modell, at least in the year prior to his moving the team, with a guy who was on our side. But James was supposed to be one of us, and Hillis was, too.
James caught us flat-footed, but we weren't about to let that happen again. This time, with Hillis, we were determined to get out in front of it. We would abandon Hillis before he had the chance to abandon us.
Thanks to what happened with James, we had to assume Hillis was going to leave us high and dry, because we didn't want to be burned again.
But as much as we blame James for all of this and will do the same to Hillis after he's gone, there's an even bigger culprit responsible for this: Tabloid sports reporting.
James may be the guy who promised he'd stay and then dumped us on the fly, but ESPN gave him the vehicle to do it.
We mostly blame James, and he certainly deserves our ire, but he couldn't have left via "The Decision" without a venue for it.
Obviously regardless of whether ESPN were involved or not, James was going to leave Cleveland. But the manner in which he did it, which was the most criminal aspect of the whole thing, couldn't have happened without them.
Nobody is blaming ESPN or any other media outlet for James' decision to leave, just as they won't if Hillis does the same, but in both cases, they were responsible for taking a bad situation and making it worse.
James will always be a selfish jerk, and Hillis could very well prove to be the same, but what allows such behavior to become worse is the way it's treated by the media. James was rewarded for his betrayal with a TV special that gave him national exposure and a venue to commit treason. As far as we know, Hillis didn't ask ESPN to run a story suggesting he faked an injury, but that's still where all the problems began.
Media rumor-mongering has since adversely affected other sports markets, but it all began with The Decision. They gave James an outlet for bad behavior, and perhaps they did the same for Hillis, but it's just as likely that in this scenario, he's a victim of tabloid sports reporting, too. It has happened to other players since, so the idea that Hillis could be innocent in all this isn't completely out of the question. Whether it's enabling treason in Cleveland or a witch hunt in Milwaukee, it's pretty clear who is pulling the strings.
But whether the player's intention was the same or not, the outcome was certainly the same.
At the end of the day, it was James' promise to stay followed by his surprise departure that left us with paranoia and trust issues, but he had help from a media outlet that was all too eager to give him a platform to ditch us in the most painful way possible.
So are our feelings about Hillis the product of doomsday-style thinking? You bet.
But is that fear of yet another apocalyptic moment in Cleveland sports well-founded?
Probably, but only ESPN knows for sure.
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