Nothing quite beats the day when a sports franchise decides that goodwill no longer matters, that the the reward always outweighs the risk, that evil always triumphs because good can’t be bothered to get off its ass, and that the customer is always stupid, lazy, and there only to be worked.
That day has already passed for the Cleveland Browns, so they’ve done the only thing there is to be done—double down with a new outrage. Call it the Watson/Billion Combo Plate if you’re looking for something catchy, but the facts themselves are lyrical enough—that is, if your film tastes run toward Erich von Stroheim.
The Browns, who have already offended their fellow predators in the National Football League by giving Deshaun Watson $230 million guaranteed dollars after his free suspension is served, have clearly concluded that getting what they want is clearly better when it doesn’t involve seeking the approval of others. Thus, they are sexily and brazenly eyeing a billion dollars of other people’s money to either build a new football stadium or renovate their old one because the 23-year-old building has been scandalously allowed to remain standing despite being the (gasp! horror! ) 12th oldest stadium in the league.
The Browns on Monday denied reports that they wanted a new stadium, but they didn’t deny the notion that whatever gets done to the rotting old state-of-the-art stadium, someone is going to have to pay for it and their plan is relying on the notion that it sure as hell isn’t going to be them.
This is part of the league’s new nationwide initiative to receive new stadiums from taxpayers in exchange for what is essentially sub-shit football. The Tennessee Titans are threatening a new place to win nine games a year at a cost of roughly $2.2 billion, with the only other choice being the citizens paying $1.8 billion for upkeep on the current joint. The Buffalo Bills already blackjacked New York State into giving them $1.4 billion. The Jacksonville Jaguars are in an ongoing struggle to renovate their stadium to the tune of $800 million. And the smell of swindling is still not off the stadiums in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, with the added benefit in LA that Stan Kroenke muscled his fellow owners into covering most of his costs in settling with St. Louis County.
But the Browns are a special case because unlike the other team owners, Jimmy and Dee Haslam don’t seem to be even trying to make nice with their potential partners/victims. The NFL hates them because of the all-guaranteed Watson deal. The city hates them because of their 121-250-1 record since returning to town, and that includes three whole playoff games, or eight minutes of playoff game per year. And now they want a billion scoots to keep providing this microscopic level of entertainment for the next 23 years, at which point the Haslam kids and grandkids will declare the new stadium a community blight and demand a new one.
It isn’t that the stadium scam is a new one, as we have seen, or that owners don’t understand that the real value of the football team is actually in real estate and media rights rather than actual football. But in this case, the Haslams have noisily abandoned the notion that they need to seem benign to make their dreams become both real and real lucrative. People always get caught up in the notion that goodwill is important in the planning of a money lift when in fact it is at best sixth on the list of ingredients after land, media rights, the humiliation of public officials, the humiliation of regular citizens, and the divine right of the rich to get richer without burdens like potential financial risk. Capitalism in its end stages always looks more like cannibalism than anything else, and your city’s long-term sustainability is their breakfast burrito.
Put another way, even the owners aren’t safe from the brass and amorality of their fellows. Stan Kroenke ran roughshod over them. Dean Spanos outflanked them. The Haslams took a 40-yard running start and jammed their thumbs in the league’s collective eyes up to the base with the Watson deal. And don’t get us started on Danny Snyder.
They can do this because the thing the owners need to avoid more than anything else is the idea that their misdeeds can cost them their teams. It is the anthrax-coated precedent that they would rather endure a 47-yard field goal to the goolies from their fellow owners than consider. Why bother with worrying about one’s reputation if you can get what you want just the same way by being nakedly rapacious?
So, sure, Cleveland. A new stadium or a massive renovation of the old one is the same thing because in the end, money is money, especially when someone else is giving it to you. No organization in sports deserves it less, except maybe the Washington Commanders, but that isn’t for lack of trying. That’s the one thing the Haslams have going for them. They can go to any owners’ meeting from now until the end of time (which with any luck will be no later than Labor Day) and say, “Yeah, but at least we’re not Dan Snyder.” That’s an exceedingly low ditch to clear reputationally, and it’s also a potential reason to keep Snyder around.